NJ’s First Online Charters Could Be Just Days Away

State Department of Education currently reviewing final charters for online schools

As New Jersey awaits a decision on its first online charter schools, the operator of three of those proposed schools isn’t taking any chances.

Officials of K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education firm, are in Newark this week continuing to wrap up the details for the three schools it would manage, one an entirely online venture from kindergarten through 12th grade and two others that blend online and in-person instructions for high school students.

The three have each won preliminary approval from the state. Now, they’re waiting for a decision this week on the final charters needed to open in the fall.

In the meantime, top K12 executives and staff were traveling to Newark and neighboring cities yesterday to continue to sign up students and get their documents in order.

“We’re visiting families one by one,” said Peter Stewart, K12’s vice-president for school development, who was among those doing the visits. “We’re continuing to get documents from everyone, it’s an ongoing process.”

Stewart said K12 helped deliver eight boxes of documents to the state to meet last month’s deadline for presenting final preparations for the three schools, including budgets, facilities, and enrollments.

The three schools are New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School, a K-12 online institution, and Newark Preparatory and Spirit Preparatory charters, both blended models serving high schools. All three are out of Newark.

A fourth school that K12 is involved with, the New Jersey Virtual Charter School, an online high school for at-risk students in Monmouth County, is asking the state for another year to recruit students before it opens in 2013. K12 would be providing its curriculum, but the school would be operated by the Monmouth-Ocean Special Services Commission.

One of its founders, former state Education Commissioner William Librera, said the school had difficulty getting lists of potential students from Camden, one of its target districts, and couldn’t pull together the necessary 150 commitments overall. The school is also targeting Passaic County, specifically Paterson, and the Perth Amboy-Freehold area.

“We simply ran out of time to get the kinds of numbers we wanted,” Librera said last night. “Finding these kids is not easy to begin with, but getting enough of them to commit in time proved difficult.”

The other three schools have met their enrollment targets and then some, said Stewart. The New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School has signed up 850 students from across the state, while Newark Prep and Spirit Prep have each signed up 135 students for the first year from their target districts of Newark, Irvington, and East Orange.

Stewart said they also submitted budgets that would amount to 90 percent of the per-pupil costs from each of the student’s home districts. That has been one of the more controversial aspects of online schools, with questions as to whether they would require the same levels of funding as traditional schools.

Stewart said that had yet to be resolved with the state. “That’s part of the discussion that is going back and forth,” he said. “We are very willing to work with the state so that families get what they need, and if there are savings, we are willing to work with that as well.”

In all, the state is reviewing 32 proposed charter schools for the fall, officials said yesterday. The decisions are to be made by July 15. One of the 32, the Regis Academy Charter School in Cherry Hill, has already been told it will not receive its charter to open in the fall, officials announced last week.

Meanwhile, the state Board of Education has put off its next discussion of the administration’s proposed charter school regulations, including provisions that would specifically accommodate online charters for the first time.

The board was expecting to take up the regulations at its monthly meeting tomorrow, but apparently the sheer volume of public comment at a hearing last month has forced it to push it ahead to August. The next phase of the deliberations involves accepting the regulations as a final proposal, with another three months before a final vote.

“The department got so many comments, they wanted more time to review them,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board’s president. “It’s not often we get so many on one topic — literally hundreds — and I think they wanted to be thorough.”