Opinion: The Battle for the Emily Fisher Charter School

R. William Potter | April 24, 2012 | Opinion
The DOE says the Trenton-based school isn't doing its job, but some state percentages suggest that may not be so

Gov. Christie and his acting commissioner of education Christopher Cerf, have made promotion of more charter schools in urban areas a centerpiece of their efforts to rescue poor children from public schools that fail to provide a “thorough and efficient” education.

Of particular concern are those neglected, abused, and often disruptive children of single-parent — or no-parent — households who can’t learn in traditional public schools.

Trouble is, many charter schools routinely avoid enrolling children like that. Euphemistically labeled “economically disadvantaged,” they are left to the tender mercies of already overcrowded, understaffed urban schools.

These inconvenient facts have been documented in a lengthy St. John’s University law review article by former Republican State Senator Robert Martin.

Using State Department of Education data, Martin — also a professor of law at Seton Hall — found evidence of what may be called academic “cream skimming” in many of New Jersey’s “more than fifty charter schools serving 13,000 students.”

The DOE data revealed that approximately “one-third of charter schools enrolled a much lower percentage of economically disadvantaged students than their districts as a whole.” And, even more disturbing, “the largest deviations occurred in the biggest Abbott districts,” such as Trenton.

In other words, where the need is greatest, the charter school response has been generally lacking, focusing on the best students and leaving the rest to fail.

Why then, we must ask, did Mr. Cerf order the Emily Fisher School in Trenton to shut down at the end of this school year? Fisher is one of too few inner-city charter schools whose mission it is to seek out and enroll those disadvantaged children who have been failing in public schools.

(Full disclosure: The author’s law partner Peter Dickson represents Emily Fisher and recently filed a stay in court to prevent a filing by Cerf that would close the school down. Much of the material in the following paragraphs is excerpted from Dickson’s 47-page legal brief.)

Since 1998 Emily Fisher has been enrolling “special needs students,” including some of the most disadvantaged and often troubled in the City’s school system.

“Many come to Emily Fisher with serious obstacles to learning. “That’s putting it mildly. These include a history of “drug abuse, criminal records and disruptive behavior, teenage pregnancy and parenthood, death of a parent or caregiver, serial houses, victim of violence, anger problems and various health issues.”

Fisher currently has at least 15 students from grade 8 – 12 “who have children of their own.”

According to Cerf, who wrote to the school in a March 2, 2012 letter, he is shutting it down because: “Only 26 percent of students were proficient in Language Arts and Literacy, and 33 percent were proficient in Mathematics . . . Overall, the school’s test scores have not improved over the last year.”

The school’s legal defense disputes all of these charges, including more found in an April 4 letter, calling them “demonstrably wrong.” Fisher is asking the court to order a “stay” — like an injunction — to keep the school open at least long enough for a hearing to disprove Cerf’s version of the facts.

For example: 36 percent of Fisher students — not 26 percent as Cerf asserts — have tested “proficient” in languages, literacy and math.

Finally, as to the all-important trend lines, Cerf is wrong again. They point upward not down.

“Fisher’s middle school has increased in each of the last 3 years,” and “Fisher’s high school over the last 2 years has increased by 16 percent in math and 30 percent in language arts.” Again, Fisher is reciting the DOE’s own data, which Cerf has ignored.

Worst of all, is the alternative if the court lets Cerf’s order stand. Students must return to Trenton’s dysfunctional and overcrowded schools or drop out entirely. Fisher’s plea to the court is supported by a unique body of education experts: Emily Fisher students.

Virtually every one of the school’s 380 middle and high school students has submitted handwritten certifications (sworn statements) attesting to why the want Fisher to stay open: Because they truly like the school; they feel “safe” there as compared to the city’s troubled public schools; Fisher teachers “will do anything for them,” and they feel they are getting a “real education.”

But unless the court grants a stay of execution, Emily Fisher will close its doors for the last time on June 29, a tragic end to what should be recognized as a model for inner-city charter schools.