NJ Education Officials, Schools Gear Up for Review of Charter Renewals

State’s revamped evaluation process places schools in three separate tiers based on performance standards

charter school kids
With nearly a quarter of New Jersey’s charter schools up for renewal this year, the Christie administration yesterday continued to provide details on how the process will work and how it has changed the evaluations.

Twenty charter schools – including some of New Jersey’s best-known — are up for review by the state Department of Education to determine if their “charters” will be renewed for another five years.

It’s a given that many of them — from the large networks like North Star Academy and TEAM Academy in Newark to the smaller schools like Elysian Charter in Hoboken and Princeton Charter School – will be renewed.

But the state’s system for holding charters school accountable has sparked public debate of late, and the Christie administration announced to schools this summer that it was making significant changes in the process.

Among the most significant: For the first time, those up for renewal have been categorized into three tiers based on student performance, with a different level of review for each tier. The highest-performing schools will see the least-intensive visitations, while the lowest performers will get the most intense scrutiny.

While those rankings had been used previously by the state as an internal tool, they are being shared with the schools for the first time this year, officials said.

“It was meant to give them a sense of whether they are on track or off-track,” said Evo Popoff, an assistant state commissioner who oversees the charter office.

In a list released this week, 11 of the 20 charter schools are in Tier 1, the highest level, based on student test scores, graduation rates and other performance measures. Two schools are in Tier 2, while five are in Tier 3. (Two others were not classified in any tier, due to inadequate data, officials said.)

The tiers themselves will not determine charter renewal, officials said, since other criteria not used to determine those rankings – such as financial and operational controls – will also be considered. The department also made revisions to those standards.

But those ranked in the highest tier will definitely see a less intense review process, with a smaller team of state monitors and a briefer evaluation visits.

“What we’re doing is focusing on outcomes in schools, and less on checking boxes of whether they met this or that policy,” Popoff said.

[related]He acknowledged his own department’s staffing limits also came into play in deciding that it wasn’t necessary to review each school with the same intensity. But he and the state’s charter school director, Harold Lee, stressed the state has hardly been lax with charters, pointing out that there have been 14 charter school closures in the last four years.

“That sometimes gets lost in all this,” Lee said yesterday.

The renewal applications are due on Oct. 15. The state ’s decisions will be announced in February.

The state’s renewal process is facing its own scrutiny, however, as critics maintain the state continues to be too lenient on charter schools while maintaining, if not expanding, its control of district schools in places like Newark and Camden.

“The academic and financial sections of the [charter] framework are simplistic, and offer little information to taxpayers and other education stakeholders about the quality of education that a charter school provides to its students,” said Susan Cauldwell of Save Our Schools New Jersey.

“The new guidance has a scoring rubric that is vague, arbitrary and does not require public disclosure of the results,” Cauldwell added in an email last night. “Charter schools are publicly funded and that funding requires a high level of public accountability, as is expected of local public schools.”

Here is a list of charter schools up for renewal and their respective tiers:

  • Beloved Community Charter School, Tier 2
  • Benjamin Banneker Prep Charter School, Tier 3
  • Bergen Arts and Science Charter School, Tier 1
  • Elysian Charter School, Tier 1
  • Foundation Academy Charter School, Tier 1
  • Jersey City Community Charter School, Tier 3
  • Knowledge A to Z Charter School, Tier 3
  • LEAP Academy University Charter School, Tier 1
  • Learning Community Charter School, Tier 1
  • Merit Prep Charter School, Tier 3
  • Newark Prep Charter School, no tier
  • North Star Academy Charter School, Tier 1
  • Paulo Freire Charter School, no tier
  • Princeton Charter School, Tier 1
  • Robert Treat Academy Charter School, Tier 1
  • Soaring Heights Charter School, Tier 1
  • TEAM Academy Charter School, Tier 1
  • Thomas Edison Energy Smart Charter School, Tier 1
  • University Academy Charter High School, Tier 2
  • Sussex County Charter School of Technology, Tier 3