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Geoffrey Canada: Our failing schools. Enough is enough!

Published on May 8, 2013

Why, why, why does our education system look so similar to the way it did 50 years ago? Millions of students were failing then, as they are now — and it’s because we’re clinging to a business model that clearly doesn’t work. Education advocate Geoffrey Canada dares the system to look at the data, think about the customers and make systematic shifts in order to help greater numbers of kids excel. (more…)

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Charter Schools Arrive … at Well-Attended Conference in Atlantic City

Event’s biggest turnout yet underscores growth of alternative education in New Jersey

By John MooneyApril 17, 2013
NJSpotlight.com

It’s nothing compared to the annual teachers convention or even the yearly gathering of school-board members from around the state, but New Jersey’s charter schools are starting to make their presence known on the Atlantic City convention circuit. (more…)

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NJ Charter School Students Learn More Than Their Peers, Says New Report

Newark charters lift statewide averages, while advantages not necessarily shown elsewhere

New Jersey’s ongoing debate about whether traditional public schools or charters do a better job educating students got some provocative new data yesterday, courtesy of a study from Stanford University that came down on the side of the charters — particularly in Newark’s embattled school district. (more…)

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Why a Newark-based school manager wants a piece of Camden

The Urban Hope Act has drawn a lot of attention to Camden and plans for its public schools.

But another story line is the opportunity the new law is affording the TEAM network of charter schools that are at the center of the city’s most prominent proposal.

Part of the national Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) model made famous in Houston and New York City, the TEAM Charter Schools network has not-so-slowly become a dominant charter network in New Jersey, with its five schools now operating in Newark with more than 2,000 students.

From its modest roots as one of New Jersey’s first charter schools more than a decade ago, the Newark campus has become a small district unto itself and is slated to double in size in the coming years, to as many as 10 schools overall, said its president and director, Ryan Hill.

Now add in the Camden plan under the newly enacted Urban Hope Act, proposing to create five more five KIPP schools in that city over the next seven years, with enrollment eventually exceeding 2,200.

In all, the 15 schools would solidify TEAM’s status as not only the biggest charter organization in New Jersey but among the biggest for any of KIPP’s 31 regions across the country, behind only Houston and its current roster of 20 KIPP schools.

“Camden will be similar to what we have done in Newark, just maybe a little faster,” Hill said in a recent interview. “But we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to grow. It won’t be like we are starting over.”

Camden not on board yet

When and even whether TEAM opens in Camden is not yet settled. The Camden Board of Education failing to endorse the proposal last month, all but blocking it from proceeding under the new law.

Enacted last summer, the law opens the way for charter operators like TEAM to work with nonprofit groups to build and open new schools in three cities: Camden, Trenton and Newark.

For the Camden proposal, TEAM is working with the Cooper Foundation of the Cooper Health Center and the Norcross Foundation, headed by George Norcross IIII, the prominent South Jersey Democratic leader and chair of Cooper.

But each of the proposals needs approval of the local school board. The KIPP proposal fell short by a single vote last month. Three other proposals were unanimously rejected by school board members.

But the KIPP proposal is expected to come back for a second vote, perhaps as soon as this week, and the speculation is now not so much whether it will be approved but when.

Why Camden appeals to KIPP
Among the four proposals submitted to the city, KIPP by far stood out from the beginning — for its political and financial support from Norcross and Cooper, but also for its track record in Newark, where student performance consistently outpaces that of the local public-school district.

In fact, Hill said in the recent interview TEAM had initially been reluctant to sign onto the Camden proposal because of its focus on Newark. KIPP had a partner school in Camden until 2009, but backed out over questions over its leadership and performance.

“We weren’t looking to go outside of Newark,” Hill said. “We had just gone through our own strategic planning process and just weren’t looking beyond Newark.”

But the law provided a number of advantages that made it appealing, he said, including greater funding specifically for school construction, which is often the greatest impediment for charter start-ups. The law provides funding equal to 95 percent of the per-pupil costs in Camden public schools, or more than $17,000 per student for Camden.

It would also tap into a new pool of potential teachers and school leaders in South Jersey and Philadelphia.

“Our biggest constraints to growth are talent, talent and talent,” Hill said. “Philadelphia is a huge teacher pool, and South Jersey is one we haven’t mined as much as well.”

Still, he acknowledged there are risks for TEAM, going into a city where it hasn’t had success before and pursuing a plan more aggressive than the approach taken in Newark.

“But having done this in Newark, we won’t go through the same growing pains,” he said. “We’re much, much better at opening schools than we used to be.”

The KIPP network was aware of the risk, too, even for a network of 125 schools in 31 different regions across the nation. After Houston, its biggest regions are in New York City, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, each with nearly a dozen schools.

The previous experience in Camden, where KIPP pulled out of the Freedom Academy charter school in 2009, was especially sobering.
“We’ll be very honest, our first foray was unsuccessful,” said Steve Mancini, director of public affairs at KIPP. “No spin, no debate, it was not what we wanted.”

But he said the opportunity provided by the Urban Hope Act is that it would be TEAM now leading the new schools, out of its Newark base, replicating that model rather than starting anew with a whole new set of leaders.

“We have the utmost confidence in Ryan Hill and his team to pull this off if Camden gives them the opportunity,” he said. “It starts with leadership, and Ryan and his team have demonstrated they can lead an organization that is good for kids and can sustain those results.”

The opposition to KIPP

That is not to say the TEAM proposal hasn’t had its critics and skeptics, both in Newark and now in Camden. The opposition in Camden has been especially strong, with community advocates openly opposing the Urban Hope Act, portraying it as a dismantling of the public schools.

The TEAM proposal would start with its first building on the Lanning Square site next to Cooper University Hospital. The site was once the location of a district school that was demolished; plans to replace that school stalled.

“That was a real community school for Camden,” said Moneke Ragsdale, an outspoken parent activist. “This is not about putting a private or charter school there, but really the need to have a school for the whole community.”

One of the specific criticisms of the TEAM proposal was a limited track record for serving students for whom English is not their first language.

TEAM has responded by citing KIPP’s extensive history serving such students in other regions, but that hasn’t entirely assuaged concerns.
“Our special needs and English language needs are very high,” Ragsdale said.

Most of all, she expressed concern about the sheer scope of TEAM’s proposal, starting with a single school but planning five in all, including a 600-student high school.

Hill said he’s aware about the concerns over the breadth of the plans, but said it’s a critical size for insuring that students get the quality education needed. The school aims for a college completion rate of 75 percent for its high school graduates, double its current rate and 10 times that for low-income communities in general.

“But you can’t get to 75 percent without the K-12 model,” Hill said. “That implies at least three schools but also a high school that is big enough to provide the programs we think it needs to.”

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Quest Founders Fight On For Charter School In Montclair

The founders have filed a new appeal with the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Tracey Williams, one of the founders of the proposed Quest Academy Charter High School, said Monday that she and others have filed an appeal with the New Jersey Supreme Court to challenge the Superior Court’s recent denial of their fifth application to open the school in Montclair.

Williams also said that she hopes to hear a decision soon on the group’s sixth application.

In short, despite the fact that the state has rejected five applications, supporters of a charter school in Montclair say they are intent to fight on.

“We decided to seek the opinion of a higher court. We retained a law firm that specializes in appeals. Attorney and partner of the firm, Michael Confusione, filed a petition to the N.J. Supreme Court asking it to review the Superior Court’s decision,” she said. “We are waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision on that.”

In their appeal, the founders of Quest explained their reasons for wanting to open the school:

The founders sought to open the charter school because for several years Montclair’s public high school had failed to meet educational standards (persistently scoring poorly in standardized tests)—a failure visited most acutely on Montclair’s minority and economically-disadvantaged students. The Department of Education had previously found that Montclair’s public high school was “not functioning for all students.” According to the 2010 New Jersey School Report Card, there was a staggering achievement gap at Montclair High School, with economically-disadvantaged and minority students scoring well below their white counterparts. 64 percent of economically-disadvantaged students failed to score proficient in mathematics, for example, as compared to 94.6 percent proficiency for white students.

Earlier this year, Williams was told by state Department of Education officials that there were deficiencies in Quest’s application—its fifth—submitted in the fall of 2011. Officials claimed that the application suffered from an “overall lack of quality.” For example, they said the application proposed a plethora of educational initiatives that are “disconnected” from the needs of students.

Yet Williams still insists that more needs to be done in the Montclair community to ensure that all students are college- and career-ready.

“We also know that these constant denials are politically motivated,” she said recently. “I can say with much certainty that these rejections have nothing to do with the ‘strength of the educational plan, the capacity of the founders to implement the plan, or even a clearly articulated community need’.”

The Quest application had been strongly criticized by former Montclair Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez, as well as by many parents in Montclair. They have expressed fears that the school would siphon money away from the public high school.

Dr. Penny MacCormack, who takes over as superintendent on Nov. 1, also has expressed opposition to a charter school.

What do you think? Do you think the founders should continue their fight for a charter school in Montclair?

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N.J. lawmakers study up on online education

New Jersey legislators got a crash course in online education this week, from virtual schools to “blended” ones, and how far other states and countries have gone with the technology.

The committee held the special session Wednesday to discuss the various models, as the Christie administration has moved ahead in approving charter schools employing the technology in levels not seen before in the state. (more…)

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Ailing Public and Private Schools Consider Conversion to Charter

While option to convert to charter schools grows across nation, just one private school in NJ has applied

Converting traditional public and private schools to charter schools is a hot topic across the nation and even now a Hollywood movie, but the conversions are drawing little interest in New Jersey. (more…)

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