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Online Educator Adds Two Newark Charters to Portfolio

Two proposed Newark charter schools once in doubt of ever opening have gotten a second life with the nation’s largest provider of online education, K12 Inc.

A week after announcing enrollment was underway at one online-only charter school out of Newark, K12 Inc. this week announced it had added two more charter schools to its growing New Jersey portfolio.

These two -- Spirit Prep and Newark Prep charter schools -- will be a so-called “blended learning “ model in which students will take classes both face-to-face and online out of a central location.

And adding to the novelty, that location will be in downtown Newark in one of its landmark buildings, the former First State National Bank building at 570 Broad St.

They will both be high schools, Spirit Prep with a math and arts focus and Newark Prep a more comprehensive high school. Each will start with 150 freshmen and grow to 600 in all four grades. Newark Prep’s enrollment will be just Newark students, and Spirit Prep will draw from Newark as well as Irvington and East Orange.

Not all the details are final, and the boards were meeting last night to discuss lease arrangements in the 15-story office building. The state also needs to issue the final charters once it determines the schools are ready to open, a final review that takes place in the summer.

“The biggest issue is getting that lease done on the building,” said Peter Stewart, K12’s senior vice president for school development.

Still, even getting that close was not always guaranteed, following the proposals’ approval two years ago by the state.

They were slated to open last fall, until the lead management organization behind the schools, City Prep Academies, abandoned the programs amid financial troubles. Tom Vander Ark, the former education head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a national leader in online schooling, led City Prep.

That’s where K12 stepped in, chosen by the local boards through a “request for proposal” process to provide the curriculum and management of the schools. These are the third and fourth New Jersey charter schools where K12 will play a lead role, adding to its network in more than 30 states overall, serving more than 100,000 students.

The other two are New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School in Newark and New Jersey Virtual Charter School in Monmouth, both entirely online instruction that will be offered to students across the state. The Newark charter’s enrollment started last month, and drew more than 300 signups in the first week.

The leader of the latest Newark schools’ bids yesterday sought to play down the school’s previous problems with City Prep and focus on its new start.

“I’d rather concentrate on the phoenix rising,” said Patrick Byrne, a longtime Catholic school educator in New Jersey who helped develop the schools’ applications.

Byrne said the new school and its mix of online and live classes would be unlike anything in Newark, at least anything that has lasted. It’s an approach that has plenty of critics too, those who say for-profit online organizations like K12 are more intent on the financial profits than the academic ones.

Byrne maintained it’s a model that can reach students who didn’t succeed in traditional schools, especially those in urban communities where the schools most come under question. He said it would be big on internships and other supports to build on the education.

“They have certainly sold me,” Byrne said. “I did mostly traditional education for 32 years, but when I saw what could be done, I’ll never go back.”

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