The ‘Other’ Online Charters Get Ready for New School Year in NJ

Two charters that blend virtual teaching with traditional classroom education have been approved by state DOE

They are the online charter schools that haven’t gotten much attention in New Jersey, the ones that will blend online tools with in-person teaching.

That lack of attention is likely to change soon, however.

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf on Monday cleared the way for two of the so-called hybrid or blended charter schools to open out of Newark next month, offering students a full-day experience in the classroom, along with a heavy dose of online learning.

It’s a big distinction from the all-online programs that generated so much debate in the past month, where students would be taking classes out of their homes. The state on Monday postponed the opening of two such virtual schools for at least a year.

The founder of the Merit Preparatory Charter School of Newark, one of the two hybrid schools cleared to open, said his program would be students sitting with teachers for 203 days a year, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“It’s very much a school, just one working with modern tools and not teaching like we did 100 years ago,” said Ben Rayer, chief executive of Touchstone Education, the company that will operate the school.

He said 80 students going into 6th grade will start the school year on August 27, in a Broad Street building in downtown Newark that formerly housed another charter school. Eleven teachers and staff have been hired and will start August 6.

“We are ready to go, we have the building, and we start in August,” Rayer said yesterday.

Still, Rayer said he knows he has a public relations challenge trying to convince the public that his programs are different from the virtual schools that have stirred up so much debate.

Rayer is well known in charter school circles just outside of New Jersey. He is the former president and chief operating officer of Mastery Charter Schools, the Philadelphia-based network that has largely won praise for its work in improving some of that city’s lowest-performing schools.

Still, online schools of any type have their critics, who contend, among other things, that their models of efficiency don’t necessarily translate into quality education.

Rayer’s open aspiration to take this model national has raised more eyebrows. But he said that the schools are not much different than traditional schools, just more effective in matching lessons to student’s individual needs.

“It’s still all about school,” he said. “Just instead of me standing in front of 30 children teaching math, I may be working with 10 of them while the others might be working online on their skills, depending on what they need.”

There is no hard-and-fast rule as to how much direct instruction and how much online. “Maybe 50-50, but it will depend on the children and depend on the day,” he said.

Rayer had sought to open two hybrid schools in New Jersey, and received preliminary approvals for both of them. The other would be in Trenton. But he said a decision was made early on that it would be a difficult lift to get them both operating, and they sought a one-year extension for the Trenton school that was granted by the state on Monday.

The second hybrid charter to open this fall will be Newark Preparatory School, also out of Newark. It will be operated by K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company and one that sought to also launch an all-online program.

The high school will also be based in Newark in a separate Broad Street building, and will start with 150 students, growing to 600 in all four grades. It will start with 20 teachers.

But a sister school, Spirit Preparatory Charter School, was not only prevented from opening this fall it was told it would not receive a final charter at all and would need to reapply. It would have also been a high school, focused on the arts.

The state cited both its failure to secure enough students in time for the fall and deeper shortcomings in its leadership and organization.

“The Board of Trustees and founders of Spirit Preparatory Charter School have not only failed to meet the necessary statutory and regulatory requirements to gain final approval, but have also not demonstrated overall leadership and organizational capacity,” Cerf wrote to the board.

The Spirit Preparatory board released a statement yesterday that it was pursuing its options, which include appealing the decision. In a statement released by the school yesterday, they blamed the denial on the difficulty in securing students’ proof of residency.

“Spirit Prep was starting with a smaller pool of potential students to begin with — those young people interested in the arts,” the statement read. “Spirit reached our numbers. Unfortunately, after a Herculean effort, the school was just not able to get the two proofs of residence required by the NJDOE.”