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State’s Decision to Rescind Two Charters Shines Spotlight on Wider Issue

Trend is toward schools operated by larger networks instead of smaller independents

greater newark charter

The Christie administration’s policies toward charter schools continued to stir debate this week, as a second school shuttered by the administration in the last month questioned whether it was being punished for – among other things -- not being part of a large charter network.

It was announced this week that the Greater Newark Charter School, opened in 2000 and one of the state’s oldest charter schools, was not approved for its five-year renewal in April, ostensibly due to low achievement levels and a lack of plans to remedy them.

But its director said yesterday that the school is appealing the decision, contending that the state Department of Education did not follow its usual protocol in reviewing the school.

Christopher Pringle, the school’s director, said the school had fallen below set benchmarks in a single area for the first time in its 14 years. He questioned if the state was favoring schools that were part of large charter networks over the smaller independent schools.

“It seems like an all-out-war on the independent charters,” Pringle said yesterday.

The comments followed similar ones made by the director of a Camden charter school also closed in the last month by the state, this one only open for a year and cited for low performance levels in its first year.

The irony is that the administration has been viewed as being a strong supporter of charter schools, with the movement growing sharply under Gov. Chris Christie, especially in districts like Newark and Camden.

But the rulings against the two schools also come at a time when the tenor is shifting in the state’s charter school movement, with larger charter management organizations like the KIPP and Uncommon Schools organizations gaining more extensive strongholds in the state, especially in Newark and Camden.

Still, the complaints are not entirely surprising for schools that fell out of favor with the administration, and a spokesman said the state Department of Education would stand behind its decisions.

“It would not be appropriate to get into a back and forth,” said Mike Yaple, the department’s communications director.

“Closing any school is a difficult event,” Yaple added. “But, ultimately, our job is to make sure every child gets a quality education.”

The decision to close one of the charter movement’s long-established schools did raise eyebrows, especially after three previous renewals of Greater Newark’s charter and, now, what was apparently a single lapse that cost it its charter.

According to acting Commissioner David Hespe’s letter to the school, Greater Newark failed to meet benchmarks in its math scores and showed little progress in making improvements.

Under the state’s new measurements, a central benchmark for charters is whether they exceed the host district’s student performance, and Greater Newark 43 percent passing rate in math fell below Newark’s 48 percent mark.

But in other benchmark passing rates, including the year before, the school had bested the Newark public school district’s passing rates by double digits – although the state noted that those student growth measures had ranked in the lowest 11 percent of the state.

“When coupled together, Greater Newark Charter School’s low proficiency rates and its trajectory of low-typical growth are not sufficient,” Hespe wrote.

Pringle said the lapse was largely due to the loss of its fifth- and eighth-grade math teachers just before the school year started, but he said steps had been taken since then to catch up.

He said the problem wasn’t so much the criteria but the little leeway his school was given to make improvements. He said some schools have been placed on probation for a number of years.

“If we are a bad school, we should be closed,” he said. “But we should be given more than a year.”

The executive director of the state’s charter school association said the issues point to the changing face of the charter movement in New Jersey.

“New Jersey has had a unique history, in that in most other states, there has been more a mix, while in New Jersey, there were very fewer (charter management organizations),” said Carlos Perez of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

“Now, that’s changing, and while it may seem like major growth, it’s really us just catching up with other states.”

Perez said he hopes that the smaller, independent charters will continue to thrive.

“They have been the life-blood of the movement,” he said. “And after all, the big organizations all started as smaller ones in the beginning.”

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