Bill to curb charter schools will rob kids of opportunity that changed my son's life

Opinion by Newark parent Sonia Negron-Ortiz in the Star-Ledger


 By Sonia Negron-Ortiz

For nearly four years I struggled to find a public school that was the best fit for my son. Now that I finally found it, Assembly members Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) want to take it away. 

Their bill, A-4351, calls for a moratorium on charter school growth, including the high-performing charter school my son just started to attend this year, North Star Academy Charter School, in Newark. 

Instead of making sure a school like North Star can grow to offer other students the same chance my son has, Assembly members Jasey and Diegnan want to stop North Star and every other charter school that is making more seats available to kids like mine. I don't know why they would do that, given that there are no charter schools in their districts.

So why do they think they know what's best for Newark parents? If either of them had the experience that I've had with my child, they would not be trying to hurt Newark charters.

Until last year, I was a desperate mother in search of a solution for my child through the district school system. My third grader had special needs, but he didn't seem to be getting the help he needed. He couldn't read. He didn't write. The teachers told me he didn't socialize with other kids, he made trouble and didn't follow directions. I asked for help. They mostly shrugged. 

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My son hated school. He was bullied for being different and he never felt part of the class. He'd come home with mostly empty notebooks, except for doodles of little animals. 

I begged teachers and principals for help. I demanded help at the Board of Education offices. I hired a lawyer. Nothing seemed to make a difference. As my son got older, I worried what would become of him without the skills that every mother hopes for her child. I cried. How will my son ever make it in this world if he can't read and he can't get along with others?

Then one day, someone suggested that I apply for North Star Academy Charter School. A blue-ribbon school? Even though North Star is a public school that takes all children, I thought it was impossible that they would take my son. At the orientation at the North Star Alexander campus, I waited until all the other parents left to approach the principal. I was embarrassed to talk about my story in front of the other parents. Such is the shame that I learned to feel after years of being turned away when seeking help for my son in district schools.

I told her about my son and she didn't even flinch. I was direct with her: Don't take him in now only to throw him out in two weeks when you figure out you can't help him. I was used to people not wanting my son in their school.

She smiled and said, "We can help." 

Within a month, I couldn't believe his transformation. My son liked school. He'd get up early to go to school, happily. He was socializing, following directions. My son was happy! Gone were the phone calls I'd get at work complaining about my son. These teachers called with good news and with his accomplishments. 

They really saw my son for who he is, a special boy with incredible potential. He came alive because of his teachers. I am forever grateful.

Within six months, my fourth-grader, who came to North Star on a kindergarten level, had learned to read on a third-grade level. He learned to do math. When we had a question about the homework, we'd call the teacher—and she called us back! Never had I imagined that would happen.

Today, my son has great ambitions, despite the challenges that lie ahead. He wants to go to college. No, he knows he's going to college. He wants to be a businessman one day, and if he can stay at his North Star school, I believe he can do it. Assembly members Jasey and Diegnan, why do you want to stand in his way?

Sonia Negron-Ortiz is a Newark resident whose son is a student at the North Star Academy Charter School, Alexander campus.

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