Newark Charter and District Schools Share Space and Visions — But Not Technology

John Mooney | October 18, 2011 | Education
Collaboration and cooperation are the order of the day, but some inequalities remain

computer kids
The fight was fierce this winter, just at the idea of Newark district schools sharing space with charters. At times, ugly hearings revealed the sense of have and have-not that often mars debates about charters across the state.

Six months later, the new shared campuses in four Newark school buildings have opened. While the turmoil has faded — some — the challenges are just as real.

The issues were highlighted as Newark school and city officials, including Mayor Cory Booker, announced $350,000 in grants from the Newark Education Trust. The money is to encourage collaborative efforts across the city — shared activities between students and parents or coordinated staff training.

The site picked for the announcement was the George Washington Carver Elementary School, where the SPARK Academy Charter School — part of the KIPP network — moved into the third floor this fall.

Carver and SPARK are a good match. The principals of both are at ease with each other and openly discuss shared programs and visions.

“I feel strongly about the other kids and not just those in our charter school,” said Joanna Belcher, head of SPARK Academy. “We have between our buildings cousins, we have neighbors, we have siblings, and I want to do everything I can to support all of them.”

But a quick tour of the schools also revealed the distinctions between each, ones that can fuel debate and tensions outside the building, if not inside.

There were some shared traits, to be sure. Students in both schools attended to their lessons in well-supplied, tidy classrooms, the kids dressed in their uniforms: Carver in white shirts, SPARK in yellow.

Yet the SPARK first grade had two teachers to Carver’s one. Along one wall, a group of students sat working on a bank of laptops that had no match in the Carver classroom.

When asked about some of the differences, Carver principal Winston Jackson acknowledged that technology is the most obvious.

“It’s a concern that district is working to alleviate,” he said. “They have given us support with technology, actually both the district and the charter. It’s a give and take. We know things are different, but we are working together.”

And he said that has reaped some benefits, including additional attention for his school. Jackson said it hasn’t been a worry with parents.

“Last year, they were asking what was going on,” he said. “But this year, they have seen we are working together.”

District superintendent Cami Anderson said she has worked hard to alleviate any inequities, and she credited the Newark Education Trust’s grants as another step in helping to even the field. She said councils of parents and staff from both schools will also help.

“Shared campuses totally work, as long as you do the work that’s needed,” Anderson said. “It’s why we spent so much time creating the building councils and the relationships between the two leaders.”

She said the inequities are difficult to bridge entirely. For instance, SPARK Academy starts each day earlier and ends each later than does Carver, a product of contracts and staffing.

She cited another Newark elementary school that is sharing space with a charter that, she said, will also benefit from the experience.

“Say at 13th Avenue School, where 19 percent of the students are proficient in reading, this was an opportunity to lift up the whole school,” she said. “It may not make it a high performing school alone, but it could be in infusing energy and new ideas.”

But what about the technology and the computers, things the district can directly affect? Anderson said that was an issue before the charter schools ever arrived.

“We need a plan for better technology across the board, but that has been true for years,” she said. “This may show the contrast, and it also could accelerate the solution, and it has already.”

Belcher, the SPARK leader, said it is a slow and deliberative process, and one she and Jackson, the Carver principal, are committed to.

“We both acknowledge there are challenges and concerns, and our goal was to say what are we going to tackle first,” she said. “So the first thing was building relationships between our staffs and the community organizations we work with.

“Now, we are moving on to do different things that go beyond the physical building, where staff are observing each other and sharing ideas. We know things have a while to go and we are here to work on them.”