New Charter School Looks Hopefully to the Future, Cherishes Its Past

John Mooney | July 23, 2013 | Education
Private academy in Newark is first in state to switch to become public charter

st philips
Fiorella Serrano concedes it will be hard to break the habit of what she says when she answers the phone at school.

“I am so used to saying St. Philip’s Academy, and now its Philip’s Academy Charter School,” said the longtime teacher and parent at the Newark school. “Just seeing that name come off the gym wall was something.”
The name change may be the least of it, as St. Philip’s Academy – a Newark private school for 25 years – officially becomes the public Philip’s Academy Charter School this fall with the state’s approval of its final charter last week.

The change represents New Jersey’s first — and so far only — charter conversion from either a private or traditional public school.

A host of challenges will come with the transition, ranging from the change of stationery and new signs to revamped requirements for teachers and administrators and mandates for accountability for student testing and school budgets.

And then there’s just the fact that it will no longer be its own private school, a culture that the school community held dearly and has vowed will remain intact.

“Luckily the laws allow us to change gradually, the best of all worlds,” said Dale Anglin, a parent and the inaugural chairwoman of the charter’s board of directors. “But let’s be clear, we are moving to the charter world, and that’s very different than the private world.”

The school, located in a refurbished warehouse in Newark’s Central Ward — complete with a roof garden — will not see much change from the start.

As allowed under the law, most of its 300-plus students from first grade through eighth grade will be allowed to remain at the school until they leave or graduate.

But as a charter, it will add a new kindergarten class each year from the general population. In the first year, half of the seats will be taken by siblings of existing students, as allowed under the law; for the remaining 19 seats, there was a lottery that drew nearly 200 names.

The transition for teachers may be even more significant. Now that they work at a public school, the school’s staff of 60 teachers and others will fall under certification and tenure requirements that did not apply to the private school.

About one-third of the teachers are currently not certified in New Jersey, and that will mean more classes and training. The school has set up a plan for each teacher, and administrators have said they are confident the certifications will be in place within two years, as required.

The teachers will also face the great burden that their public peers have felt for years: state testing. While the school previously did its own standardized testing, the state’s NJASK exams are administered during a four-day period each year, with results reported publicly.

Serrano, a longtime fourth-grade teacher who will move to head teacher next year, said that won’t be too much of a problem for teachers, but it will certainly be a period of transition. She said training has already begun, with teachers trying to weave test-taking skills into the curriculum and to explain the impending changes to parents.

“We are not going to be a school that is teaching to the test,” Serrano said. “We will be teaching the children to be test-takers within the curriculum so that they are ready for the next steps in their lives.”

Still, the biggest transition – and potential threat – is to what educators and parents interviewed for this story repeatedly talked about: the school’s culture.

The school’s leadership started before the charter application was even filed to talk with parents, teachers, financial donors and students about what it meant to be a public charter school. The lure was obvious, as fundraising was becoming more crucial to sustaining the school while tuition covered less and less of the costs. Private schools have long struggled to survive in urban centers like Newark.

“But the question was would our culture change, would we become a different school,” said Miguel Brito, the school’s executive director and lead founder.

It took a lot of long conversations, he said, and provisions were added into the charter itself to insure the kind of parental involvement that made the school strong, along with keeping the kinds of enrichment classes that set it apart.

“What we wanted was a mirror image of what we had,” Brito said.

Anglin, the parent and new board chairperson, said that the preparation and dialogue were invaluable.

“They spent a lot of time making sure people were invested in this, and as a parent, I really appreciated that,” she said. “At times, I wondered if they were over-communicating, but I think it went over very well.”

She and others said the school could rely on its history in Newark as a school founded through the Episcopal Church to give low-income residents an opportunity to get a quality education.

“We benefited from already being here 25 years,” Brito said. “We’re the same people doing the same things, and we saw we could stay intact because we are so strong.”

But Brito said he recognized that the rules are changing, that test scores will be more public, that it will have to accept the new students who come through its doors, and that its budget will be there for all to see.

The school has a strong core of private funders, he said, and they will continue to help with facilities costs faced by the school in its new building. State law prohibits state funding for charter facilities costs.

But the rest of the costs will be borne by local public school districts, currently an assortment of 31 districts from Newark to Old Bridge but what will eventually be whittled down once students graduate out to three districts — Newark, Irvington and East Orange.

Each district will pay $9,000 to $15,000 per student, officials said, depending on the district’s own costs. That’s an improvement on the current tuition of about $7,500, with all but a small number of students getting some financial help.

Anglin said the first years will probably be the easier ones, with the staff and the student body largely intact. And the board has pledged that it will take measures of to maintain its quality of education in the future. She said the school has long been a place that has been accepting of all students and challenges.

“There is no downside for now,” she said. “There hasn’t been much change yet. The point is over time, in five years, when we have different kids and probably some different teachers, how will we manage the change then.”

Serrano’s daughter was among the last graduates of St. Philip’s Academy last spring and she expects her son to be in the first graduating class of Philip’s Academy Charter School in 2014.

With those personal touchstones in mind, she spoke with pride about both what has ended and what is beginning at the school.

“Won’t that be something?” she said.