Charter Schools Arrive … at Well-Attended Conference in Atlantic City

John Mooney | April 17, 2013 | Education
Event’s biggest turnout yet underscores growth of alternative education in New Jersey

It’s nothing compared to the annual teachers convention or even the yearly gathering of school-board members from around the state, but New Jersey’s charter schools are starting to make their presence known on the Atlantic City convention circuit.

About 850 educators and board members representing more than 60 of the state’s 86 charter schools descended this week on Bally’s Atlantic City for their fifth annual conference. It was the event’s biggest turnout yet, representing another step in building charters as a political force in the state.

The event, organized by the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, was helped by having as its keynote speaker state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), arguably the Legislature’s most powerful voice on education issues – not to mention that she is currently working on a new charter school law.

While still representing only a fraction of the state’s overall public-education spending, charter schools also may be proving to be a new economic force — more than 100 vendors filling the exhibition space with booths selling everything from smart technologies to food services.

For all the tensions that have emerged of late between charter schools and their public school-district peers, the two days of workshops and presentations showed there as many similarities as differences between the two camps.

But while there were workshops dealing with such familiar topics as school safety and classroom technology, there also were sessions titled “Policy 101 for Charter Schools” and “The Road to a Successful School Opening.”

Much like at the annual conferences held by their traditional education brethren, there were awards for teacher of the year (Beth Verrilli of North Star Academy in Newark) and for top administrator (Deirdre Grode of Hoboken Charter).

In the realm of awards that were distinctly charter-oriented, there was also an Advocate of the Year award for the behind-the-scenes fundraising work that has become integral in the movement (awarded to Joseph Palazzola, chair of the Hope Academy Charter School Foundation in Asbury Park).

Still, in one of the better-attended sessions on Tuesday, there was the recognizable sound of school leaders airing their grievances with the state Department of Education – even one that is perceived as pro-charter under the current governor.

Attended by close to 60 people, the session focused on the state’s new performance framework for charter schools, a complex checklist of requirements and guidelines addressing everything from student achievement targets to fiscal “debt ratios.”

And much like their district peers, the charter-school representatives had plenty of questions about how the standards are to be applied equitably, whether the data was accurate, and how much flexibility is afforded. This is a state department that is seeking to prove its mettle in cracking down on low-performing charters, but they were given little leeway.

Some asked about funding inequities, even among charter schools themselves. Others raised questions about new state requirements that charters not only match the test scores of their district schools but exceed them.

“We live in a community where there is death and murder every day,” said Doris Carpenter, chief operating officer of D.U.E. Season Charter School in Camden. “How do we expect they can deal with this? There are social and other stressors in their lives every day.”

But state officials also weren’t backing down, either. “Our job is to educate kids, no matter where they come from, no matter their ZIP code,” said Amy Ruck, director of the state’s charter school office.

By Tuesday afternoon, much like at the teachers and school boards conventions, the crowds had thinned out, with the exhibitors packing up and a few early exits.

But John Frangipani, principal of the first-year City Invincible Charter School in Camden, said the trip across the state was well worth it.

“For someone like me, new to the state, it’s really useful to be here,” said the Pennsylvania transplant. “For me, it’s a chance to meet other charter leaders and power brokers. It’s a chance to learn the landscape.”