After just one year on the job, the leader of Newark’s Marion P. Thomas charter school network is leaving to head up a nearby school district.

A. Robert Gregory, who recently launched an ambitious plan to revamp the 20-year-old charter network, is stepping down to become superintendent of Hillside Public Schools, a small district next door to Newark. Gregory was a top Newark Public Schools official and a contender for the job of superintendent before he took the helm of Marion P. Thomas in late 2018.

His sudden departure deals a blow to one of the city’s oldest charter school networks, which has grappled in recent years with academic, financial, and staffing challenges. At a staff training last fall, Gregory said Marion P. Thomas needed “a drastic reboot — a complete 360.” 

In an interview Monday, Gregory acknowledged that his “transformation” of Marion P. Thomas’ three schools was just getting underway. But he insisted that steps he took during his brief tenure as superintendent — including replacing the teaching materials and hiring new school leaders — set the network on an upward trajectory that will continue without him.

“I put the right supports in place so they can actually get the job done,” Gregory said, adding that he was drawn to the Hillside job because he attended school there for several years as a child and because the roughly 3,000-student district is about twice the size of Marion P. Thomas.

Not everyone is as optimistic about the network’s future as Gregory. Parent Emily Aikens said the Marion P. Thomas elementary school her son attends is in crisis, and Gregory’s departure will make it worse. 

“He’s leaving this school in shambles,” said Aikens, whose son is in third grade at the network’s PAC Academy. She raised concerns about staff turnover and the quality of homework her son is assigned.

Marion P. Thomas opened its doors in 1999 with the help of Newark’s historic New Hope Baptist Church. Since then, it has grown from 60 students to about 1,500 spread across two elementary schools and a high school. It bills itself as one of the largest African American-led charter school networks in New Jersey.

In recent years, the network’s struggles have overshadowed its legacy. By the time Gregory arrived in November 2018, the schools were dogged by low test scores, high suspension and absence rates, and frequent teacher turnover. Facing a $1.5 million deficit, the network had recently laid off staff members and cut after-school programs.

Gregory gathered feedback from staffers and families about the schools’ challenges, then embarked on a sweeping overhaul. He merged two elementary schools, hired new school-level administrators, and replaced the curriculum with one used by a high-performing charter school network. He also began restoring after-school activities and instituted policies meant to reduce the network’s suspension rate, which was three times higher than the state average. 

“Part of transformation work is you have to make a lot of changes and be really aggressive about the changes you’re making,” he said.

To assist with the overhaul, the network hired an outside group to manage its finances and operations and oversee its academic program. The organization, BRICK Education Network, is a Newark nonprofit that previously managed two district schools and now runs two charter schools of its own. 

While BRICK will continue to help oversee Marion P. Thomas’ schools, the network must scramble to find a new leader. In a Friday letter to families announcing Gregory’s unexpected departure, the chairman of the network’s board of trustees said the trustees will “step up to lead the school” while they search for Gregory’s replacement.

“We are thankful for his leadership and are cheering for his continued success on his new journey,” wrote Rev. Vincent Rouse. Rouse and BRICK CEO Dominique Lee did not respond to emails Monday.

It’s unclear whether the Marion P. Thomas overhaul Gregory began will lead to long-term improvements. He predicted that the network’s test scores will improve significantly this year.

But he conceded that PAC Academy, which educates students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has struggled recently. PAC’s principal resigned over the summer, and the network fired her replacement a few weeks into the school year. Two former vice principals now co-lead the school.

The school is also serving more students than before after Gregory closed a different Marion P. Thomas school, called SELECT, and moved its students into PAC’s building.

Aikens said her son’s third-grade teacher left abruptly last month, and that the school is short an eighth-grade science teacher. Last week, she emailed Marion P. Thomas’ leadership about errors in the homework worksheets her son was assigned and called the school’s new math curriculum “garbage.”

The school is “a mess,” Aikens said in an interview. “It’s a big mess.”