Two Troubled Charter Schools Are Quietly Put on Probation

John Mooney | March 11, 2011 | Education
A letter of probation, rather than a press release, awaits charters teetering on the edge

In a state now with 73 operating charter schools, the list of schools that didn’t make it over the last 15 years is about half the length: 35 charter schools that either saw their charters revoked or gave them up. Another five never got off the ground.

Now add at least two more that are teetering toward the edge, two schools that the state quietly put on probation in the last week for a host of problems, ranging from lack of required services and accounting to low student achievement.

It didn’t draw a press release, not like those that announce new charter schools, not from an administration that has made expanding charter schools a centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda.

But even the probationary letters speak to the challenges faced by both the charter schools and the state if it intends on promoting successful charters and holding accountable those that are not.

One of the two put on probation is Trenton Community Charter School, a school that has long struggled with low achievement levels. Last year, just 42 percent of its eighth graders passed the state’s achievement test in reading, and that was the high-water mark. The low point was just 15 percent — one in seven students — passing in fourth grade.

“Develop a plan and timeline to address the school’s low levels of student achievement,” read the state’s order to the school, giving it 15 days to submit a remedial plan and 90 days to show progress or potentially lose its charter.

But that was just the start. The school was cited for not having proper services for students with disabilities or even a full curriculum in place and available to teachers.

One order appeared particularly damning: “Develop a plan and timeline to address the proper functioning of a full Board of Trustees.”

The school’s director yesterday acknowledged there is a lot of work to do, and in a short period of time. But principal Christi Pemberton said the state’s concerns are fair and she was confident that the K-8 school would show the necessary improvements.

“This isn’t the first school to go through this, and unfortunately probably not the last,” she said.

The other school placed on probation is University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, located on the campus of New Jersey City University. Its list of concerns was even longer, although more in the depth of programs than outright deficiencies. They included concerns about the quality of professional development for teachers, the need for revisions of its curriculum and the lack of effective ways to track student achievement through data collection and other means.

The school’s leaders yesterday could not be reached for comment.

The head of the state’s charter school association this week said the state’s actions to hold charter schools accountable are critical to the movement’s success.

“All schools should be measured by one criteria – student outcomes,” said Carlos Perez, executive director of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “Whether it’s a traditional public school or a charter school, the state needs to look at whether its continued operation is in the best interest of the students.”