Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that Paul Schaeder, the board chairman of Golden Door Charter School who was initially ordered removed from the board in 2003, was reinstated upon appeal in 2004.
For all of Gov. Chris Christie’s talk these days about boosting charter schools in New Jersey, a telling lesson sits close to home: the charter school founded by his own education commissioner, Bret Schundler.
In 1998, Schundler as mayor of Jersey City, opened the way for the Golden Door Charter School to be one of New Jersey’s first charter schools. Today, they number more than 60.
Schundler used city bonds to erect a gleaming new building for the 500-student, K-8 school near the mouth of Holland Tunnel. One of his mayoral aides was the board’s first chairman, and Schundler would extol the new school’s rising test scores as immediate proof of the benefits of providing more options for families.
But in the years ahead, not everything went so well. Golden Door’s brief history is a testament to the common challenges many of these small, innovative schools face—and to some not so common.
Schundler's aide was ultimately reprimanded by the state after accusations of being a “one-member board.” The scores did not always continue to rise, although most still exceed the district's averages. What has risen is the city rent, which is now $80,000 a month. The school is being forced to move from the modern headquarters Schundler built for it.
Still, Golden Door has showed the agility and adaptability that is one of the hallmarks of charters. Without the constraints —or the unions—of the traditional schools, it employs a merit pay system for its teachers. In another hallmark of charters, parents and students describe the school as an intimate and warm place buffered from the crime and poverty of this city of 240,000 people.
And 12 years after the school’s opening, its leaders and others said it is now on much firmer footing, much like a child who has matured out of adolescence.
“You definitely need time, and need to learn from your mistakes,” said Brian Stiles, one of the school’s inaugural teachers and now its director. “There was nobody for us to follow back then. We had to learn on our own.”
Schundler is no longer involved aside from an occasional visit, but he said Golden Door remains a good example of what charters can provide in terms of choices to families. He said it is not just about having better test scores, but opportunities for success.
“I never said my school would be the best charter in the state of NJ; I said it would help kids, and it did that,” Schundler said recently. “If you take the economic background of these kids and some of the demographic factors, Golden Door is doing very well.”
Schundler and his boss in the governor’s office want to see a lot more charters in New Jersey. During the campaign and again in the first months of his administration, Christie has constantly extolled the merits of charter schools and said the state needs to promote and encourage them to a far greater degree.
At a town hall meeting in Hoboken last week, the governor told of families who pine on wait-lists and cross their fingers to win the lotteries that decide who gets in these schools. The state now holds 29 proposals for new charters in its hands, one of the biggest application pools in years, and Christie indicated it could be a big acceptance class, too.
“You will see the Christie administration make a broad expansion of charter schools in this state,” he said.
Brian Stiles is glad to hear it, although the 45-year-old chief academic officer of Golden Door doesn’t have much time to think of anything but his own school these days.
The school’s upcoming move, planned for 2011, remains a daunting task, with a lease still to be signed for an undisclosed location in the city. That's not to mention the daily challenges of operating a school of 500 students and 44 teachers.
Golden Door is finally in a stable place, Stiles said, with a new reading curriculum and scores mostly on the upswing. Although the numbers still go through wide fluctuations, depending on the grade, student achievement is as strong as any school in Jersey City, he said, including a nearby elementary school that is arguably the top performer in the district. And in that case, it is a school in the gentrified section of the city, while still two thirds of Golden Door's students—taken from across the city—are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunch.
“I think we do very well,” he said. “It is important to compare us with other Jersey City schools, and we do well against them."
Stiles has been at the school from the beginning, a former second grade teacher and now its second director. And he knows there were rocky periods, but said they come with growing any successful school.
“Things were crazy back then; we didn’t even know if charters would make it,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Those first years reflected the growing pains. Starting in trailers before moving to the new quarters on 9th Street, Golden Door’s test scores were a bright spot in its early years. Where just 15 percent of its first class of fourth-graders was proficient in language arts in 1999, the fourth-grade passing rate more than tripled by 2001 and was up to 68 percent by 2002. The math scores made a similar climb.
But the numbers belied some of the troubles behind the scenes. In the first year, state monitors came down on the school for a host of issues, from teachers without proper certifications to financial accounting problems that included a $600,000 deficit in its $4.4 million budget.
Some of its most-public difficulties came in the rise and fall of Paul Schaeder, an aide to Schundler in the mayor’s office and selected chairman of the board.
Affable and charismatic, Schaeder carried Schundler’s mission into the oversight of the school, putting the best face on both its successes and its troubles with the state.
Yet he ran into trouble himself in 2003 when he was accused of unilaterally firing the school’s first director and also hiring a former trustee to be technology officer for $750 a day.
The entire episode roiled parents, as they filled board meetings and complained they weren’t getting the voice they expected for a charter school. The state School Ethics Commission at first ordered Schaeder removed from the board, but upon appeal, he was reinstated and ended up with only an official reprimand.
Schundler to this day has tried to disassociate himself from the controversy, and this spring said only that Schaeder “should have known” not to make the moves he did.
“You will always have in any human institution people who will disappoint you, and you have to make a change,” Schundler said. “I liked Paul but clearly what he proposed was a conflict of interest, and he should have known.”
Asked why didn’t he step in himself, Schundler said he did recommend to the school’s board that it not approve Schaeder’s personnel moves. “I didn’t think it proper, and I’m glad it worked out the way it did,” he said.
Schaeder could not be reached for comment.
As those troubles eased, the school hit a plateau in some its achievement gains.
The fourth-grade math scores have continued to rise, peaking at nearly 70 percent proficiency in 2007. But the reading scores have hovered around 60 percent since 2004, before dropping sharply last year due largely to changes in the state’s scoring that adversely affected elementary school scores across New Jersey.
In eighth grade, math scores have also steadily risen, although still only to about 50 percent proficiency in 2009. Reading and writing scores have been more of a roller coaster, before rising to close to 80 percent last year.
Still, visits to the school found classes orderly, hallways lined with updated student work, and children by and large engaged in their studies.
“Ooh, I love how quiet it is,” said Alison Kraft, a second-grade teacher, as she moved about her class of 21 students.
This segment of the morning had Kraft multitasking. She had literacy assessments to complete, four students at a time, while the rest of the class was left to independent reading or working in different “centers,” some donning headphones to listen to lessons, others at a giant chart matching words with suffixes.
“When I say go, read this to me,” Kraft said to one of her charges as an assessment began, following and marking each word on her own copy.
“Perfect, every single word, perfect,” she said.
The assessments are critical to the school, with Stiles back in his office pulling out binders of data for every class.
Evaluations are conducted of every teacher at 10, 20 and 30 weeks. The student data is included, but so is a range of other measures, from organization of lessons to the climate in the classroom. Teachers are rated from “distinguished” to “unsatisfactory,” and given raises accordingly.
“Say we have a pool that’s a 3 percent increase overall, the highest would get 5 percent raises and the lowest 2 percent,” he said. “I’ll be honest, it’s not easy to get distinguished.”
It’s not perfect, he said, and the school still struggles to maintain a steady teaching corps. Not organized into a union, the teachers make on average about $44,000—well less than Jersey City’s average of close to $55,000.
With the change of the reading curriculum three years ago, the school saw more than a dozen teachers either leave or not get asked back. "We wanted to see how they respond, and if they weren't going to be cooperative, it wasn't going to work," Stiles said.
Still, last year, every one returned who was asked back, and the same for the coming year, he said.
That’s enough stability for Bricke Lynn, a 14-year girl in the eight grade who will be attending Marist High School next year.
Coming from both parochial and traditional public schools in fifth grade, she said she had never heard of the charter school. But dressed in the school’s maroon and khaki uniform, Bricke said she immediately appreciated the order and comfort.
“Honestly, I never feel for my safety, and that’s important,” she said. “It is so family oriented, you know everyone.”
Bricke said there are some constraints of being in a smaller school, but she still takes several “specials,” like Spanish and music. And the benefits of teachers not letting you fall through the cracks are well worth the trade-off.
“They’ll fit their schedules for you, whether it’s recess, after school, before school,” she said. “Every school probably says they’re a home away from home, but it’s really true here.”