State Gives Preliminary Go-Ahead to Two New Charter Schools

Newark academy would be first under new law allowing private-to-public conversions

The Christie administration continues to be picky about new charter schools, with just two applications approved in the latest round announced yesterday — one in Newark and one in Camden.

If it receives its final charter, the Newark school would be the first approved under a new law allowing existing private schools to convert to charter schools. The new school would be Philip’s Academy Charter School, a renaming of St. Philip’s Academy, a well-established independent school in the city’s Central Ward.

The Camden application is for the International Academy of Camden, an elementary school founded by a group of New Jersey entrepreneurs and likely to be run by a private education management organization.

Among those under discussion is the operator of the Ascend Learning charter schools in New York City, but one of the founders of the Camden school stressed that others are also being considered in a public bidding process.

Both plans must go through a final evaluation in the coming year, before final charters are awarded. Both are slated to open in 2013-2014.

The new round of approvals is the smallest in any single round of applications in New Jersey, following a trend as the Christie administration has significantly scaled back its support of new charters in the face of considerable public backlash.

In the first round of charter applications after Christie’s election in 2009, more than 20 were approved. But the numbers have dropped considerably, after protests mostly from suburban communities that did not want the experimental schools drawing their students or siphoning their money. Charter schools are operated outside the control of local districts, but paid for by district funds.

“By holding a high bar for any new school we approve, we are following through on our commitment to ensuring that we not only provide options for students, but that we provide high-quality options for students,” said state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf in an early-evening press release announcing the two approvals.

The preliminary approval of the Philip’s Academy school in Newark is new territory for the state – the law allowing private schools to become public schools was passed just last year. Proposed regulations for such transitions have not even been finalized by the state Board of Education.

The school in Newark was established in 1988 under unique circumstances. According to the school’s history, posted online, a philanthropist had offered scholarships to two city students to attend the prestigious St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, but there were few Newark students able to qualify.

The late Dean Dillard Robinson and the congregants of Newark’s famed Trinity and St. Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral then founded St. Philip’s Academy as an elementary school that would better prepare Newark students for such high-level secondary schools. Starting with just 10 students, it grew to include 334 last year in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In its application to become a charter school, the school said it would start with 372 students in the first year. It would be able to retain its current students until they leave or graduate, but new students would then come from Newark, Irvington and East Orange, where more than half of the current enrollment resides.

With more than 70 percent of students receiving financial assistance, the school’s stated mission is “to provide a rigorous and moral education to children of the city of Newark and its environs regardless of their ability to pay tuition, enabling them upon graduation to be successful at the most selective secondary schools in the nation, thereby contributing to the revitalization of the city of Newark,” read the application.

“It is our intention to integrate our successes of the past 24 years to the charter school landscape in Newark,” it said.

St. Philip’s would not be the first independent school to struggle to survive in Newark on tuitions and contributions alone. The Chad School in Newark closed in 2005 under economic duress. In an interview last night, the head of St. Philip’s, Miguel Brito, said fundraising had been very strong at the school, but it was a difficult model to sustain for a school in a city such as Newark.

“This blended model of public and private funding was the best way of continuing to provide these opportunities to students,” Brito said.

The Camden school’s launch would be more typical for New Jersey’s charter schools — beginning from scratch. It is the brainchild of a group of New Jersey’s business and civic leaders seeking to improve education opportunities. Camden was a natural place to start, said one of its founding board members.

“The simple but powerful answer is need,” said Michael Harp, a marketing consultant from Lebanon Township. “The statistics from there (Camden) would make a grown man cry.”

The school would start in kindergarten through third grade with 350 students, he said, and grow to nearly 700 students, with kindergarten through sixth grades.

Harp said the Camden school plans to contract with a management organization to run the school, and Ascend Learning is among those under discussion. Ascend runs a well-known network of five charter schools in Brooklyn, and also plans to apply for a charter in Paterson, according to its website. Harp stressed that a “request for proposal” process would likely include up to a dozen organizations bidding for the contract.

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