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Bill Would Allow Charter Schools Geared Toward Students With Specific Needs

Lesniak seeks to allow school in Elizabeth – to be named after him – to limit enrollment to teens fighting substance abuse.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak

When state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) was approached about having his name on a proposed new charter school aimed at teenagers with addiction problems, it was ostensibly to honor him for his work in substance-abuse services and recovery.

But it turns out that his legislative skills and politicking might be needed for the school to even open its doors.

Lesniak is sponsoring a bill, which is moving quickly through the Legislature, that would amend the charter school law to allow specialized schools – specifically, schools serving students with substance-abuse issues.

It turns out that while the Raymond Lesniak ESH Recovery Charter High School’s application, filed in April, passed the first level of review by the state Department of Education, it has been held up by legal questions over whether it can be permitted under current law.

The existing law requires charter schools be open to all who apply, space permitting, and they can’t limit enrollment to certain types of tudents.

The Christie administration “said it needs a change in the law,” Lesniak said yesterday in explaining the bill. “I commend the commissioner to allow the application process to proceed, while we change the law.”

The issue of restricting enrollment at certain charter schools has come up before. Three years ago, the state tentatively approved a Newark charter school for students with autism, but the school’s founders ultimately withdrew the plans. Others have sought to open charter schools specifically for at-risk students.

In its first meeting since June, the Senate Education Committee yesterday heard testimony on Lesniak’s bill and unanimously endorsed it for passage. Students and other advocates testified that there is a big need for such programs at the high school level.

The proposed charter would be a high school, located in Elizabeth, accommodating up to 125 students in grade 10 through grade 12 from Elizabeth and Roselle.

Led by a Roselle-based human services organization, Prevention Links, the school would offer a regular curriculum but also provide recovery programs and other monitoring and support for teens coming out of treatment programs.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee’s chair, and several other members said they might be open to allowing enrollment restrictions targeting other specific groups of students, including those with special needs and those at risk of dropping out of school.

There was a brief discussion about amending Lesniak’s bill to include those groups, but Ruiz said that would probably come in a separate piece of legislation. She continues to work on a broad overhaul of the 1995 charter school law, and she said it could be part of that as well.

Still, that could prove to be a controversial measure in itself. When the Newark charter school for students with autism was proposed and approved, some special-education advocates decried it as running counter to the federal and state law and guidelines that promote more inclusionary settings.

Ruiz said yesterday that she understands those concerns, and she said the idea needs more discussion. She said one other possibility is for local districts to create charter schools within their borders to serve these special populations, which might be a provide needs programs while keeping the students within the community.

“It’s a conversation we should have, particularly in providing the best academic opportunities for those populations,” Ruiz said afterward.

Facing some of those questions, Lesniak said afterward that he didn’t want to jeopardize his bill by including other groups of students at this point. He pointed out that the school still needs to be approved by the state and, if it gets the go-ahead, would then face a tight timeline to be ready to open in 2014.

“Obviously, I don’t want to jeopardize this particular application,” Lesniak said. “Perhaps those other issues could be dealt with in separate legislation . . . We need to show movement to get this (application) approved.”

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