Fine Print: Noted Newark Schools Seek State OK to Go Charter Route

BRICK Academy passes first round of application process, but faces hurdles within city’s public school district

Officials of Avon Avenue School, which is now part of Newark's public schools district, has asked the state to let it become a charter school.
What it is: The state Department of Education has advanced a proposal by BRICK Academy, an innovative program within Newark’s public school district, to effectively combine its Avon Avenue School and Peshine Avenue School into a single charter school.

BRICK’s leader said the change would give the two schools more freedom and flexibility, saying they have been hindered by the public school district’s bureaucracy and mandated costs and funding limits.

What it means: If the new Achieve Community Charter School is approved, it would be the first time that a public school in New Jersey is converted to a charter school.

The change would add fuel to the ongoing and sometime acrimonious debate over the relationship between public schools and charters — a debate that it perhaps most intense in Newark. What’s more, the proposed switch comes at a time when school district leaders are looking to improve the city’s South Ward schools – including BRICK — to better serve their neighborhoods.

Not a conversion: The transition is not technically a “public school conversion,” a yet-to-be-used option allowed under the state’s charter school law, state and school officials stressed.

Instead, BRICK Academy has filed a new charter application that essentially would close the two schools, reopening them with the new governance structure under their new combined name.

The money rationale: Dominique Lee, CEO of BRICK Academy, said becoming charters would enable the schools to break away from district strictures that he said amount to required spending of an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 per pupil, money he said is mostly spent on central office personnel and services.

The new charter school would use that money to hire additional teachers while bolstering support services like counselors and social workers.

“We’d be adding a whole different level of services that we can’t now,” Lee said.

The hiring criteria: Charter status would also allow BRICK to hire teachers without having to go through the district’s hiring process, Lee said, a process now even further constrained by Newark’s notorious pool of excess teachers.

What about the union? Becoming a charter would mean restarting without labor unions and their contracts, but Lee says he’d support letting his teachers stay within the Newark Teachers Union, albeit under a separate contract.

“We have no problem becoming a unionized school,” he said, adding he has already reached out to the NTU. “It would be a separate contract with similar working conditions.”

The district’s options: The Newark Public Schools, which have been under the state’s operation for 20 years, would need to sign off on the plans one way or the other, including deciding whether to lease the existing district-owned school buildings to the new charter.

Last year, former Superintendent Cami Anderson blocked a similar bid. This year, the decision will rest with Anderson’s successor as superintendent, Chris Cerf, the state’s former education commissioner. So far, he has not spoken publicly about the proposal, although the BRICK application says the public-school district has provided “their support in seeking to effect that transition.”

An alternative: Cerf has offered an alternative. He and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka last week announced an initiative to remake Shabazz High School and up to three elementary schools in the South Ward to become “community schools.”

The initiative would, through the “community schools,” offer a range of neighborhood services outside the classroom, as well as giving the schools new hiring freedoms and additional budget resources. It would be funded, at least in the first year, by $12.5 million from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the fund created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the city’s schools.

BRICK’s options: BRICK’s Avon Avenue School is one of the schools being considered for inclusion in the Cerf-Baraka initiative. Lee said his organization is keeping its options open. “If we can solve these challenges in other ways, that would be great,” he said.

The union’s role: John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, implored the state to block the move and keep the schools in the public-schools district as it pursues the community schools plan for the ward.

“We finally have the mayor and the superintendent sitting down to craft a solution,” he said.

But he wouldn’t rule out the NTU organizing in the new charter school – which would also be a first for the union.

“If and when, we could always sit down and talk about that,” he said.

Next step: The proposal was one of three approved in the first round of the application process. The application now must go through a more rigorous review and interview cycle, with a decision expected by spring.

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