In Hoboken, a Fight Over Racial Balance in Charters: Moran

Tom Moran | The Star-Ledger
09/14/14

If you want to understand how the backlash against charter schools is a curse to children in New Jersey, look to Hoboken.

The district, whose students are struggling, is doing its utmost to sabotage an innovative charter school whose students are thriving.

The charter is a dual-language elementary school known as Hola, where kids are immersed in Spanish from kindergarten when their young brains absorb languages easily.

Like all charters, Hola is on a tight budget. It spends $11,000 per student, compared to$27,000 in the district schools, and charters get no money for facilities.

So Hola’s classrooms are cramped, its offices are like closets, and some of its hallways are cluttered with boxes. Some classrooms are separated from others by flimsy collapsible walls. And the only way Hola can afford rent is to share the building with the Boys and Girls Club, which uses it after school hours.

“We’re bursting at the seams,” says Jennifer Sargent, the executive director. “The cafeteria doubles as a classroom.”

Whites in Hoboken have fled the district in droves, thanks to its long record of academic failure and racial imbalance.

But the kids at Hola are focused and thriving. Teachers have authority here, and classrooms are orderly, bright and decorated with student projects. By sixth grade, these kids are learning comfortably in both English and Spanish, a gift that will yield lifetime benefits.

And their test scores are rocking: They are in the top quarter of academic achievement in New Jersey, according to the state, and the top 1 percent when measured against peers of the same demographic.

So, what, exactly is the problem?

* * *

The core dispute is about race. Whites in Hoboken have fled the district in droves, thanks to its long record of academic failure and racial imbalance. The city is 82 percent white, but all the district elementary schools are majority African-American and Latino.

Hola is something in between. Its minority population is 37 percent, twice the rate in the city, but far below the levels in district. At Hoboken’s most segregated district school, Connors, 95 percent of the students are minority.

The district argues that Hola is aggravating racial segregation in the district schools by giving white families an out.

“They are pulling white students away,” says Eric Harrison, the attorney for Hoboken schools. “The mix we are seeing in charter schools does not mirror, or even come close to, the mix we see in public schools.”

So the district has filed suit to block Hola’s expansion into seventh and eighth grade, on the shaky assumption that its white students will then enroll in district schools.

When you look at Hola’s history, this tactic is enough to make you scream. The founders originally took their dual-language idea to the district and asked to help set up a program under district control at Connors, with all its segregation. The district said no.

Hola then went to the state and asked for permission to rig its admission lottery so that poor and minority kids would have an advantage. The state told them no.

So they hustled. They knocked on doors. They went to public housing projects and handed out leaflets. They tried.

And in the end, they got twice the portion of minority kids as the city’s population. And progress continues. This year’s kindergarten class is 41 percent minority.

So ask yourself: Is this the profile of a school that is trying to block out minority kids?

Even the district can’t bring itself to make that claim. Its suit is aimed at the state for granting this expansion, not at Hola for accepting it.

“Hola hasn’t done anything wrong,” says Harrison, the district’s attorney. “We’re not claiming they are the bad guys.”

If you are searching for villain, consider the district itself. It is spending $50,000 on this lawsuit, forcing Hola to spend $15,000 so far, and diverting its board and staff from the educational mission.

And the dirty secret is that the district itself is aggravating segregation by allowing white families who live near Connors to travel across town and enroll in other schools.

The mechanism is a perverse district choice program. In Montclair, parents rank their choices and are enrolled with the goal of achieving racial balance. In Hoboken, choice allows white families to flee from Connors, making segregation worse.

“That does happen a lot,” school board president Ruth Tyroler concedes. “It happens because it’s human nature.”

* * *

The fight over racial and economic mix at charter schools is playing out in cities all over New Jersey. And now the state Department of Education is changing its policy to adapt.

The catalyst was Newark, where Superintendent Cami Anderson set up a system ofuniversal enrollment to ensure that charters take their fair share of at-risk kids. Parents choose from a menu of district and charter schools, and she assigns students to ensure rough balance.

That shocked many people in the education world, because it seemed to break state law, which requires a blind process in assigning students to charters, typically by relying on an admissions lottery. The idea was to block charters from showing favoritism, to give everyone family a fair shot at those seats.

But once the state allowed Newark to put its finger on the scale, to give at-risk students a better shot at charter seats, a precedent was set.

Now David Hespe, the acting commissioner of education, says that all charter schools can use weighted lotteries to enroll more at-risk kids. That’s a major policy change certain to draw legal challenges, but it could resolve fights like the one in Hoboken.

As for segregation in schools, it may be time to turn the tables and blame the districts. After all, in Hoboken, as in many cities, white flight long preceded the birth of charter schools.

“Our district schools don’t look like our communities,” says Carlos Perez, head of theNew Jersey Charter School Association. “What we should be asking is why families are leaving, and what we can do to attract them back to public education.”

Hoboken’s answer is to go after Hola. It might find that working to improve its own offerings would be more effective. 

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