3 New South Jersey Charter Schools Get Lesson in Patience and Red Tape
Phil Dunn | Courier-Post
Opening a charter school in New Jersey is not for the faint of heart.
Robin Ruiz, founder of Hope Community Charter School in Camden, said its initial application to the state was more than 100 pages long. The teacher, along with a founding team of about six people, submitted the paperwork for approval in September of 2010.
“We were denied,” said Ruiz, who is now less than a month from opening the literacy-based elementary school.
The group tried again in October of 2010. The state approved the application a few months later, but not without first requesting an interview with the charter school’s founding team in Trenton.
“I felt confident, but we were all biting our nails up there,” recalled Ruiz, who wrote most of the application on nights and weekends so as not to affect her teaching job at Camden County Technical School.
“It was like how you feel before a big job interview,” Ruiz said.
Fast forward three years, Hope Community was one of six charter schools given final approval to open this September. Camden Community Charter School and Vineland’s Compass Academy Charter School were the two other South Jersey schools approved.
Ruiz and her staff are setting up classrooms in space they leased from First Nazarene Baptist Church on 9th Street in Camden.
From start to finish it took Ruiz more than 1,000 days to get to that point, but it really is just the beginning of the school’s history.
“We really had a plan and we followed it,” she said.
The misconception that charter schools in New Jersey receive no regulation from the state could not be farther from the truth.
The New Jersey Department of Education is involved in just about every step of the planning process.
It can even close down a school found not to be in compliance with certain academic or financial guidelines.
Carlos Perez, president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said the six charter schools opening this fall will give 1,200 students in New Jersey the opportunity to choose an alternate form of education, a number he said will double over the next four years.
“More than 30,000 children are enrolled in charter schools in New Jersey, but another 20,000 remain on the wait list and these additional public charter schools will provide an opportunity for many of them to receive a high-quality, public school education,” he added.
According to the New Jersey Department of Education, there are currently 81 charter schools in New Jersey, and for the most part students receive the same array of courses they do in traditional public schools.
But those courses are tied to an overall theme such as literacy, citizenship or science and technology.
Contrary to popular misconception, students in charter schools take the same standardized tests as public schools and do not have to pay tuition.
“Charter schools might have longer school years and school days, and class periods and the daily class schedule might be quite varied and flexible when compared with other public schools,” said Department of Education Spokesman Rich Vespucci.
But unlike traditional public schools, charters operate on multi-year agreements that must be renewed by the state. Initial charter agreements in New Jersey last four years, and then five years thereafter.
According to the 2012 Department of Education renewal protocol, charter schools are reviewed for approval in four key areas: academics, organizational framework, fiscal viability and five-year planning. States reviewers interview everyone from the board of trustees to students and parents.
They also review student records, test scores, policy, curriculum and financial information — including bank statements, payrolls and bill lists.
If a school does not meet certain standards, it can be put on probation or shut down.
Max Tribble, spokesman for Charter School Management Inc., characterized running a charter school as “risky.” CSMI, which will manage Camden Community Charter School, has run a charter school in Chester, Pa., for 14 years.
This will be its first school in New Jersey.
“It is very risky, if you don’t have confidence in your ability to deliver better instruction,” said Tribble.
Three of New Jersey’s 16 charter schools up for renewal in 2012 were shut down, including one of the state’s oldest, Liberty Charter School in Jersey City. Three other schools were put on probation.
The Institute for Excellence Charter School in Winslow Township also was shut down and will not be permitted to open this fall.
In its non-renewal letter, the state cited low test scores and inadequate leadership.
“I think it is good that charter schools are held accountable,” said Ruiz. “We’ve made a promise to parents that we will provide a better educational opportunity and we need to deliver on that.
“Charter schools are charged to do more with less and a lot of them have done it well.”
A independent national study released this year by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows charter school students have greater learning gains in reading than their peers in traditional public schools. Gains in mathematics were equal among charter and traditional school students.
Officials said the gains by charter schools are driven in part by the presence of more high-performing schools and the closure of under-performing ones.
“Not every charter school is successful,” said State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
“We must hold all of our schools accountable for results. It is time we end the outdated argument about whether a school is a district school or a charter school and instead focus on whether it is a great school providing high-quality options to New Jersey students.”
The 26-state CREDO study, which included New Jersey, analyzed records from more than 1.5 million charter students.
Charter schools now serve approximately 4 percent of the nation’s public school students in 41 states, with more than 2.3 million students in more than 6,000 schools. The largest growth in the charter-school population came from students who are poor, black and Hispanic.
“The results reveal that the charter school sector is getting better on average and that charter schools are benefiting low-income, disadvantaged and special-education students,” says Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO at Stanford University.
“As welcome as these changes are, more work remains to be done to ensure that all charter schools provide their students high-quality education,” she said.
Stan Karp, a retired teacher who now works for the Education Law Center in New Jersey, has been critical of the state’s promise that charter schools would help spark education reform here. In the March edition of the education journal NJEA Review, he said charter schools function more like “deregulated ‘enterprise zones’ than models of reform, providing subsidized spaces for a few at the expense of the many.”
Karp contends charter schools drain resources and staff away from traditional district schools.
“This is especially a problem in big-city public systems that urgently need renewal and resources but are increasingly being left behind with the biggest challenges,” he writes.
But Karp doesn’t mean to suggest charter schools are necessarily the enemy.
“No one questions the desire of parents to find the best options they can for their children,” he noted. “But the original idea behind charter schools was to create ‘laboratories for innovation’ that would nurture reform strategies to improve the public system as a whole.
“That hasn’t happened.”