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State Education Department Approves Just Three Out of 38 Charter Proposals

Jersey City, Trenton bids get go-ahead; Lesniak-backed school to help substance abusers rejected

chris cerf
State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf

On the eve of the November election, the Christie administration has approved just three more application for charter schools in New Jersey, continuing its on-again, off-again relations with the charter movement.

The state Department of Education confirmed yesterday that it had approved three of 38 applications for new charters to open in 2014, two of them located in Trenton and the third in Jersey City. The approvals are only preliminary, with final charters not issued until next summer.

The small number of new approvals continues a pattern for Gov. Chris Christie and state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who started as big charter backers but scaled back their support in the last two years in the face of rising backlash in some communities.

“The department’s goal is to approve high-quality charter schools that provide families with additional choices in the education of their children,” Michael Yaple, the Education Department’s chief spokesman, said yesterday. “All parents should be given a choice to find the school that is the best fit for their child, and we believe these schools will offer that high-quality choice.”

Adding to a current roster of 87 charter schools in operation, the latest selections for approval are interesting choices, and leave out a couple of prominent applicants.

One plan rejected was the proposed charter high school in Elizabeth that was backed by -- and was to be named after -- state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). Catering specifically to students with substance-abuse issues, it would have been the only charter in Elizabeth.

Instead, the department focused on two urban districts that have seen charters come and go, with the latest proposals providing some new approaches. The three new schools getting preliminary approval are:

  • Great Futures Charter High School for the Health Sciences. The high school in Jersey City will focus on health sciences, including partnerships with the Boys and Girls Club and the Jersey City Medical Center.

  • The International Academy of Trenton Charter School. The elementary school, with 350 pupils, will serve both Trenton and Ewing students. The school will be managed by SABIS Education Systems, a private charter management organization which runs schools in Camden, Paterson and Jersey City.

  • Trenton STEM-to-Civics Charter School. A high school also serving Trenton and Ewing students, it will focus on the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Trenton STEM-to-Civics charter is especially intriguing, as the school plans to have partnerships with institutions as varied as the Liberty Science Center and Princeton University.

The school will eventually be located on the campus of the Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Ewing, the once-venerated state school that has seen enrollment steadily drop as education of the hearing-impaired has evolved.

In addition to using one of the many vacant spaces on the Katzenbach campus, the charter school plans to team with Katzenbach and provide some combined programs. Still, its focus overall is expanding the options in STEM and civics education for students throughout Trenton and Ewing.

“It is really about the partnerships we have developed, with Liberty Science, Princeton, the Department of Environmental Protection,” said Nicole Doran, one of the two founding directors. “There are a lot of exciting things we can do with these in place. We will be a traditional high school with a lot of exciting opportunities for project-based learning.”

The founders of Trenton STEM-to-Civics have deep ties with the existing Village Charter School, located less than a mile away on the Trenton/Ewing border. Doran was a former fundraiser for the school, and the other founder, Leigh Byron, is the former head of the school.

But both said the ties end there and that the new school will be wholly independent of Village Charter.

The rejection of the Raymond Lesniak ESH Recovery Charter High School drew fire from the proposed school’s namesake, who said yesterday that the department’s decision showed a lack of compassion for students in need.

The school had been held up by current charter law that prohibits such targeted enrollment, but Lesniak and other Democratic leaders had recently pressed and seem poised to change the law. Apparently, their effort was not in time.

The department “said it was too recovery oriented,” Lesniak said last night of the application. “Sad. Now 40 students will likely not graduate nor get a better opportunity to recover from substance abuse problems.”

Lesniak said the proposal would move ahead as a private school. “I will not abandon these children, as has the (department),” Lesniak said.

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