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Funding for New Charters Underscores Push to Keep Standards High

Trenton debates closing of Emily Fisher Charter School while NJ finally wins start-up grant.

On a day the Christie administration proudly announced it had won a federal grant to help its newest charter schools, top officials were also dealing with the fallout over closing one of its oldest.

Gov. Chris Christie and acting commissioner Chris Cerf announced yesterday that the state had finally won an elusive $14.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help with the start up of new charter schools and expansion of others.

The state had lost out on the grant the past two years, and faced some criticism from reviewers in the process for not having the capacity to best use the money. But yesterday, Cerf and Christie touted the new grant as evidence of the administration's commitment to quality charter schools.

Through an individual grant process, the money will go to schools in their first three years to help sustain them, and also to successful charter schools to either expand or replicate their practices.

"We have and will continue to support the expansion of high-quality charter schools as one way to ensure that all students have great educational options available to them," said Christie in a statement.

But more quietly, the administration's oversight of charters yesterday also stirred some debate in the state's capital city following the administration's announcement earlier this month to close one of the state's oldest charter schools, Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton.

Following a week of rallies and protests, the director of the school, Dallas Dixon, met with Cerf and his chief of staff, David Hespe, for a half hour to discuss the school's status and implore them to reconsider.

He said the state's decision -- technically not to renew the school's charter at the end of the year -- was based on faulty information over the student achievement levels.

Specifically, Dixon said student achievement had improved in each of the past three years, and his students outperformed Trenton public schools on state tests in five out of eight grades.

Cerf in his letter to the school said it was in the bottom 3 percent in student performance in the state in the last three years, and the school performed "dismally" in certain areas.

"What the letter said and what's the reality is wide in between," Dixon said last night.

"We have never said we don't have a long way to go, but one of the measurements is to show improvement, and that's what we've done," he said.

Cerf would not comment last night, but his spokesman said the school's test performance was damning.

"Emily Fisher has been serving students for the past 14 years, and yet only one out of every three students is proficient in math and one out of every four students is proficient in Language Arts Literacy, placing it in the bottom 3 percent of schools in the state over the past three years," said Justin Barra, the state department's communication's director.

"The school is not meeting its mission to provide all students with a high-quality education," he said. "We must and will provide better options for the students of Trenton."

The commissioner has clearly been putting on a big push in the last several months to show the administration is both promoting charter schools and also holding them to high standards.

The federal grant announcement gave him a boost, especially after the state's high-profile failure to win it in the past.

"From the amount of text messages from school founders I have received about this, this is a big deal," said Carlos Perez, director of the New Jersey Charter School Association.

"This will help a lot of schools build a foundation," Perez said. "For some of them, this will make a big difference."

At the same time, Cerf continued to maintain that charter schools outperform their district peers, and he touts how more than 20 new charter schools are slated to open next year.

His charter school office has also expanded to 10 employees, he said, under the leadership of interim director Amy Ruck, a former New York City charter school official.

But it gets more delicate in the closing of schools. In the decision on Emily Fisher, Cerf announced he was also not renewing a Pleasantville charter school and putting one in Clifton and another in Trenton on probation.

The non-renewal letter for Emily Fisher was not just about test scores, but a host of operational problems. Still, the school poses a tricky target for the commissioner, since not only is it one of the oldest charters in the state, it has been known as serving as an alternative for students who don't succeed in the district schools.

Coming out at school rallies in the last week, its supporters maintain that judging it by test scores provides only a limited view. The school serves 400 students from Grades 5 to 12, and students and alumni shared how the school provided a last chance for many of them.

"The kids we take already failed in Trenton schools once," Dixon said yesterday. "Now you want to put them back in there?"

Still, Dixon said Cerf appeared to listen to his concerns yesterday, and he hoped the commissioner would reconsider.

"I was thankful that he gave me the time -- he certainly didn't have to," Dixon said. "We had the opportunity to present our statistics and numbers, and he was engaged in the conversation. We left him the information to review."

Dixon said he would not rule out a more formal appeal or legal challenge, but would prefer not to. "It is not in the cards at the moment, but waiting until the commissioner gets back to us," he said.

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