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The Charter School Alternative — South Jersey

Everything parents need to know about charter schools in South Jersey



ECO Charter School

Matthew Goodwin was an A/B student when he attended public school in Camden as a kid. Yet when he started college at Arcadia University, he had to take developmental classes because he was reading only on a 6th-grade level. So as a dad, when he noticed that his son Tamir, now 16, wasn’t being challenged in Camden’s public schools, Matthew decided to take action.

“The academic environment wasn’t ideal for him, and LEAP was one of the few alternatives that we had,” says Matthew of the charter school in which he enrolled his son. At LEAP Academy University Charter School, Tamir not only excelled; he accelerated his learning, taking courses at Rutgers University via a dual program. When he enters Rutgers New Brunswick next month as a full-time college student, he’ll have almost a year’s worth of credits toward his degree.

Tamir’s siblings all attend LEAP Academy, too. Last year, teachers discovered that his sister Maya, now 11, had issues with comprehension. “They got her additional help and she went from being an average student to being on the Safety Patrol, on the student council, and her grades are better than they’ve ever been,” says her proud father. “They not only identify when a child has problems but also help them with those problems.”  

What is a charter school?

While charter schools get lots of buzz these days, they aren’t new. In fact, they’ve been around in New Jersey since 1997. Today, of the state’s 87 charter schools, 20 are in South Jersey (below Mercer County, including 19 in the MetroKids area, 2 of which open next month), serving 37,500 students — about 2.5 percent of the region’s public school population. 

Charter schools are public schools funded with federal, state and local tax dollars but independently run by a governing board — parents, educators and other community members who must prove to the state that they can successfully educate local students. The board must come up with a mission and present its case to an authorizing body — in New Jersey, the Department of Education — that decides whether or not a school can open. New Jersey schools are given an initial four-year charter and must demonstrate success to remain open. If a school falls short, it can lose its charter. 

Charter schools are evaluated annually; subsequent renewal decisions are made every five years. Failing charter schools may be placed into “turnaround” and assigned to a management company that specializes in overlaying a successful eductional model on troubled schools.

“Charters tend to be in more urban areas,” largely as a response to failing public schools, says Harry Lee, director of the Office of Charter Schools for the NJ Department of Education. “So in certain districts, charters comprise a larger percentage of the student population.” Therefore, in South Jersey, charter schools are clustered mostly in Camden. Currently, New Jersey’s charter schools are all brick-and-mortar. The option of cyber charter schools — which allow kids to learn online from their own home — has been rejected by the state commissioner of education for several years in a row, most recently this past July, though at least one virtual state charter is in a “planning year.” 

Financially, charter schools receive a per-pupil allotment, including funds from their local school district, for operating costs — but not for buildings, equipment or start-up. That outlay may come from private donors, foundations, loans and grants. Although they receive less government funding than public schools, charter schools have greater flexibility in deciding how to use their budgets. 

Indeed, says Lee, “They have a lot of flexibility, including [choosing] their own board of trustees. They can set their own curriculum, as long as it aligns with the Common Core standards, and they have flexibility in their staffing structures. So there’s a lot of innovation that happens within charter schools.”

With flexibility comes accountability, which leads to more oversight. “If you’re not performing and providing quality education, you will likely be closed,” adds Lee. “The accountability piece is very strong.” Case in point: Seven South Jersey charter schools have closed in the past five years. 

Many charter schools focus on a particular interest — say, technology or performing arts — in addition to traditional subjects. Charter school students need to demonstrate their knowledge on state testing, just like public school students. So to fit in the extra subject matter, the school day and year are often longer.

Unlike public schools, charter schools are not required to have a collective bargaining agreement with teachers. This makes it “easier to replace staff who are not performing well,” says Lee. 

Despite the pressure to prove their effectiveness and potentially lower pay, good teachers are attracted to charter schools for the reduced management and room for classroom innovation, Lee continues: “Because there is less of a bureaucratic system, teachers may have more professional development opportunities, collaborative work environments and opportunities for growth.”

Why choose a charter school?

Families like the Goodwins have their own reasons for selecting a charter school, but according to Lee, the main attraction is having options. “Charter schools are all unique, so parents have choices” in approach and size, he says. 

In New Jersey, each charter school establishes an initial student-recruitment period and an application deadline for enrollment. If, at the end of this period, the total number of applicants exceeds the spaces available, a lottery is conducted. After the lottery, the school establishes a wait list.  

One drawback of a charter school may be a lack of extracurricular activities that an established school has had time to develop. But typically, after a few years of operation, clubs and sports are added.

Opponents say that charter schools hurt the overall public school system, diluting funding and skimming away top students. But Lee says competition is a good thing, theoretically impelling all schools to up their game, as “The money follows the students.” Ultimately, “It is about providing quality education and opportunities. We want to expand access to great schools.” 

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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