Op-Ed: Why Were These Three Charter Schools Shuttered by State Education Officials?

We followed DOE rules, which is more than can be said for the DOE itself

From left: Lorna Hassel, Christopher T. Pringle, and Dr. Doris Carpenter.
For all practical purposes, the May State Board of Education meeting appeared to be just another business meeting.

On the contrary for three independent charter school leaders, who independently of one another attended the meeting to protest an inequitable and unfair process that led to the closing of their school.

Each school has its own accounting regarding the renewal process, but all three leaders were quick to see that they shared a regulatory process by the Department of Education (DOE) that is inequitable, arbitrary, and clearly gives the commissioner excessive discretion in decision making. Citing the need for flexibility, the DOE holds a wide berth in inequities, discrimination, and a lack of due process.

D.U.E. Season Charter School of Camden, Dr. Doris Carpenter, School Leader

D.U.E. Season Charter School of Camden (D.U.E) has been educating children since 2005, with a current enrollment of 550 K-8 students. The school is operationally and financially sound, according to the DOE.

We received accolades from the NJ DOE just a few months ago for being the first charter in the state to offer breakfast, snacks, lunch, and dinner.

Yet our charter renewal process was laden with violations of law and code; void of due process; and filled with data inaccuracies.

Although D.U.E. Season has outperformed the district of residence, we received probation due to new standards established by the NJ DOE’s Performance Framework in June 2013. The framework asserts that charters in low-performing districts must perform at least 15-24 points above the district of residence.

The framework was drafted in June 2012, added to the state code May 2013, and is being applied retroactively to the 2009-2010 school year.

According to code, the framework is applied to schools that have signed a charter agreement. The charter agreement is a work in process and according to
the DOE was not required this renewal cycle. Since agreements were not required and the framework only applies to schools that have signed the agreement, we should not be closing based on the framework’s standards.

Upon receiving probation in June 2013, we asked the DOE about remediation growth benchmarks since we did not have our 2013 NJASK scores. On June 25, we agreed upon a local benchmark and level of growth. We submitted a remediation plan on July 12. To date, the remediation plan has received no comments or monitoring by the NJDOE. Regulations require comprehensive review of charter schools (N.J.A.C. 6A 11-2.3b) and state monitoring of remediation plans

Our remediation plan was successful as 83 percent of students increased in literacy and 85 percent increased in math, with most students falling between 10-15 points of growth in one marking period.

In addition, we learned from the NJ DOE website that the Annie Casey Foundation showed the following academic progress for D.U.E Season students:

  • Fourth-grade African-American students of D.U.E. Season matched the performance of African-American students in the state and outperformed African-American students when reviewing national statistics in reading.
  • Fourth-grade African-American students of D.U.E. Season outperformed the performance of African-American students in both the state and the nation in math.
  • The percentage of total all subgroups in eighth grade at D.U.E. Season Charter School outperformed the national eighth-grade percentage in math.
  • (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics 2013)

    This begs the questions; Who came up with the performance framework; how true is it to student performance and growth; how does the framework rationalize taking kids out of higher-performing school and placing them in lower-performing schools?

    If our school were to close in accordance with NJ DOE’s plans, our students will leave our school to attend “priority” schools that perform lower than D.U.E. Season. How does that measure in with the life framework for students?

    NJDOE also used erroneous data. We were placed in the wrong peer group, which compares us with surrounding suburban districts. D.U.E. Season’s student body is 87 percent low-income students but the school was labeled as only 73 percent.

    We can speculate regarding the reasons for our closure from advancing Camden’s new Renaissance Schools to helping Camden City School District balance its budget. We are against closing our school to advance either!

    Our State has a broken charter-regulatory system that is arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. As charters are held accountable to regulations and law, so should the NJ DOE.

    Greater Newark Charter School of Newark, Christopher T. Pringle, School Leader

    Greater Newark Charter School of Newark (GNCS) has been educating students for 15 years and continually outperforms the Newark District Schools by double digits. The commissioner has ignored our long history of success and has decided to close GNCS based on a one-year dip in test scores.

    Last year we lost two highly skilled math teachers. This resulted in a drop in student performance in two cohorts, which impacted the schools’ overall performance.

    We submitted our renewal application on October 15, 2013, DOE officials made a site visit on November 18, 2013 and it was uneventful.

    Abruptly, on February 16, 2014, the DOE demanded an academic remediation plan by March 5, 2014 or GNCS’s would be revoked.

    Although the March 5 deadline was unreasonable since it gave us 14 days to respond, we developed and submitted a comprehensive plan.

    On March 13, I was called to the DOE and asked a few questions about the plan but received no feedback.

    I didn’t hear back from them until April 18 when I received a call informing me that GNCS’s charter was revoked.

    The decision was shocking since GNCS has a long history of success, has never received unsatisfactory warnings, and hadn’t been afforded a probation period.

    Current projections based on ongoing student performance data indicate that GNCS’s students will make significant gains for the current and future school years. The DOE’s position that GNCS’s scores cannot substantially improve is speculation, since they have not analyzed any current student-performance data. Additionally, they refuse to wait until this year’s test results before closing GNCS.

    This accounting shows that GNCS received no communications from the DOE in regard to student performance prior to February 2014. They dispensed with their own processes and policies, and arbitrarily decided to close our school. We believe this decision to be more about “One Newark” than about GNCS students.

    In the end, it’s the students who will be impacted the most. They are losing their school of choice and most likely will be assigned to a school that other students have generally rejected under the One Newark Plan. The first round of the enrollment lottery was completed prior to the closing announcement of Greater Newark; this puts Greater Newark students at a clear disadvantage in that some of the highest-performing schools have already been filled.

    Our school has been successful for almost 15 years; one cluster of testing in one year put our school on the chopping block. Yet many other charters have been afforded more than one probation period.

    GNCS’s fate was decided in two months without any prior indication that there was something wrong, without any probation period, and without due process.

    On the other hand, a counterpart school in Atlantic County that has operated for 14 years, was placed probation in June 2013 and granted a second probationary period for one-year in March 2014.

    Two schools, one DOE, two different sets of rules.

    When the new charter regulations were proposed in June 2012 by Commissioner Chris Cerf, many testified that the proposed changes afforded the commissioner excessive discretion in decision making. There were insufficient details in his amendments to define the criteria and standards for decision making.

    The DOE’s answer was that the change was necessary to give flexibility to the commissioner so that decisions could made on a school-by-school basis, rather than blanket criteria that may not sufficiently address individual charter school circumstances. Obviously, this new set of regulations has made for arbitrary and unfair decision making.

    Five years ago, there was so much hope for an improved statewide environment for charter schools. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

    Renaissance Regional Leadership Charter School of Pemberton, Lorna Hassel, School Leader

    Renaissance Regional Leadership Charter School of Pemberton opened in 2010 to elementary students in the Pemberton area. Renaissance is a small school serving 160 students, including 17 percent students of military parents.

    Last June 12, 3013 we received a letter from the commissioner of education stating that Renaissance’s state assessment score results needed improvement. There was no mention of a probation period, but we took the letter seriously since the scores did not meet our expectations and goals. We immediately implemented several remedial initiatives:

  • Summer Academic Boot Camp
  • Hired two specialists to work with teachers and students in language arts and math
  • Added new study-aid programs
  • After-school tutoring
  • We thought these initiatives would be key factors in improving student progress for the April 2014 state assessment. The letter from the DOE clearly stated that we needed to improve scores on state testing and the only way to do that from the June 12th letter is for the students to take the next round of testing.

    The DOE never asked us for a remedial plan but we had the opportunity to present it to them during their October site visit for renewal. There was little to no reaction to the plan but we were told that student growth percentiles were extremely important.

    In January 2014, we celebrated when the DOE published the new school performance reports showing that Renaissance’s performance is “very high.” Renaissance outperformed 80 percent of schools statewide and 93 percent of schools in our peer group. This showed that Renaissance students were learning above the typical rate.

    On March 5, 2014 we received a letter from Mr. Evo Popoff advising us that our charter won’t be renewed. This is the first communication we received from Mr. Popoff since the June 2013 letter advising us that we needed to remediate our students’ scores.

    How did he make this decision when the only test of academic comparison is comparing one year’s test scores to the next? Where was our probation period? Where is the comprehensive review of the school; there were no communications regarding remediation from the June 12 letter to the March 5 letter of denial.

    There appears to be no rubric as to how a school gets judged since there are other schools with similar scores that were given probation.

    According to N.J.A.C. 6A:11-2.4 Probation & Revocation of Charter, there is a process to be followed prior to the revocation of the charter. This was not afforded to Renaissance. The regulation also provides for a “comprehensive review,” N.J.A.C. 6A:1– 2.3. If this happened, it was done without our knowledge or input and we never received a copy of it.

    Renaissance parents are very motivated and when they learned that the charter was not renewed; they attended one of Gov. Chris Christie’s town hall meetings in hopes of opening communications about the issue. The parents were thrilled when the governor called on one of them and said to give his staff their name and number and someone would get back to them so that a meeting would be held and the issue could be discussed.

    Sadly, we received a letter stating that the governor’s office was standing in favor of the commissioner’s decision. There was no meeting despite the governor’s comments at the town meeting. Everyone was greatly disappointed.

    All stakeholders at our school firmly believe that the state assessment results for this school year will show dramatic improvement over last year’s assessments. We have been monitoring our students’ growth and all assessments support this assertion.

    By not allowing a fair and reasonable probation period, the system is cheating students, parents, and schools.