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Former State Commissioner of Education Stays Close to his Roots

Carly Berwick | April 12, 2013

Bret Schundler pursues his passion for education as consultant for Jersey City charter.

Bret Schundler, New Jersey's former commissioner of education.
Credit: Carly Berwick
Bret Schundler, New Jersey's former commissioner of education.

The parent calling was concerned about what size school shirt to order. “I can help you with that,” said the gentleman answering the phone at Jersey City’s BelovED Community Charter School -- who happened to be the former mayor of the city, the former state education commissioner, and a two-time Republican candidate for governor.

As a do-everything-and-anything consultant to BelovED, Bret Schundler took the order for two extra-smalls.

In the two and a half years since Gov. Chris Christie fired him as state education commissioner in August 2010 for allegedly omitting a key detail in New Jersey's Race to the Top grant application, Schundler has been busy applying his passion for education policy as a consultant. Since 2011, BelovED has been the main beneficiary of his experience.

Currently serving students in kindergarten through second grade and expanding one grade each year, BelovED opened last fall in a building of another charter school closed for poor performance by the state. Once the school received final approval and startup funding in summer 2012, it was able to hire Schundler on a $56,000 six-month contract, which was renewed. Precise timing and choral mantras -- we are smart, we are strong, we will learn with all our hearts” chant second graders at the start of the day -- co-exist with the school’s tautly orchestrated curriculum from a for-profit outfit called Sabis Educational Systems. BelovED pays an annual fee to Sabis for its curriculum and assessment programs.

The “lead founder” of the school is Greg Corrado, Jersey City’s assistant business administrator. Corrado says that he had long been interested in education and school choice and that he would only start a school if Schundler, his longtime friend, would help. “Bret is good at discovering resources all around the country and world as to how we can improve education. He’s a policy wonk.”

While mayor, Schundler launched the Golden Door Charter School in 1998 and has been a longtime advocate of charter schools and vouchers. Schundler was previously a Wall Street trader and served as chief operating officer for the private Christian King’s College after losing his second bid for governor in 2005.

After the dispiriting end of his brief tenure as top education official in the state, Schundler has kept his focus on education, although an outlet for his interest has developed in fits and starts. A brief-lived collaboration with a developer, Charter Facility Acquisition Inc, dissolved. The BelovED Community Charter School Foundation, which he established, is also being closed down.

On mornings last spring before the final approval for the school came through, the former mayor was on street corners throughout the city, handing out flyers advertising the school. Putting paper in people’s hands is the best and cheapest way to get the broadest cross-section of students, says Schundler, who is strikingly softspoken for a former politician.

The technique seemed to work. In the end, most classes were filled at the start of the year, and of the approximately 360 BelovED students, 77.5 percent receive free or reduced lunch, similar to that of the district schools.

Since then, Schundler’s many duties for BelovED have included recruiting staff, something an outside firm offered to do for $42,000 a year; making sure students have access to on-time buses; talking to technology vendors; finding financiers for the $5.6 million purchase of the building (a real-estate investment trust, or REIT); and meeting with board members before a vote on establishing merit pay for teachers.

As a consultant, Schundler helped raise $120,000 in private grants before the school opened and assisted with the state startup grant, although he stresses that he was not involved in the application process.

Board member Jessica Lisboa, head of performance arts at Newark’s North Star Academy, helped vet and hire key staff. She says it was very useful as a new school to have a consultant such as Schundler who could take on multiple tasks. Schundler is in talks with other area charters as well.

For BelovED, the only charter school to open in Jersey City this year, Schundler wanted an existing curriculum model that relied on frequent assessments and extensive use of data. Through his friend Steven Wilson, president of the charter chain Ascend Learning, Schundler discovered Sabis, whose materials and curriculum Ascend uses for its six Brooklyn charters. An Ascend charter has been approved to open next year in Paterson.

Sabis’ approach, which the company says leads to students scoring higher on state tests than their sending districts, depends on teachers hitting predetermined objectives within a lesson. Teachers check student comprehension within the lesson and give weekly tests and every-six-week periodic exams, set by Sabis. Yet Sabis hadn’t yet developed the periodic exams for second grade, the highest grade at BelovED this year. So the principal, Kelly Convery, a former teacher and administrator at a Sabis school in Bahrain, had to develop her own, along with bi-annual Terra Nova testing, for which the results are not yet in.

Not all parents -- including those in Jersey City with the income to send their children to one of several local private schools with more progressive curricula -- embrace test-heavy schools for their kids.

“There is an ideology which is suspicious of assessments,” Schundler acknowledges, without placing himself within it. His own children went to a private, Christian, progressive school in Hoboken called Mustard Seed. He was educated in Westfield, New Jersey, and at Harvard University, where, he says, the library was as exciting as some of his classes.

“There’s less risk from that approach when children are advantaged and a lot of learning takes place before you get to school,” Schundler says.

The difference between his own more self-directed educational experience and that of the students at BelovED and other assessment-driven schools isn’t troubling to Schundler. He says that at BelovED, the many assessments do what parents with higher income and education might do on their own: probe for gaps in student mastery and address them, often with pricey tutors or extra lessons. For low-income families, the school is supposed to take care of that.

“Teaching [using] assessed standards is good,” he says, referring to the idea that regular testing that is aligned with the curriculum allows schools to find gaps in student knowledge. “That political debate has been won. The data is so powerful.” Schundler sees frequent assessment becoming the norm in New Jersey and other states that have adopted the Common Core.

“The state is going to develop six-week benchmarks and have it available. I think a lot of what we are paying Sabis for will be available for free one day,” he adds.

Carly Berwick writes about education and culture. A former senior editor at The Week magazine, she has contributed to the New York Times, New York magazine, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

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