Schools in Camden, Willingboro among 9 granted final charters by N.J. DOE

The Christie administration Monday put out a short list of charter schools given final approval to open in the fall, but more interesting was the far longer list of those not getting the go-ahead.

Nine schools were granted final charters, according to the announcement from the state Department of Education late Monday, including four in Newark and two in Camden.

More notable was the department’s decision to postpone 10 other school openings for another year, including the state’s first all-online schools. Another 13 schools that it had approved earlier were outright rejected.

Among those 13 were two suburban charters — Regis Academy Charter School and Princeton International Academy Charter School — that had been at the center of intense community disputes over the past year. Other schools on the list contended that they had met all the state’s demands.

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In letters to some of the schools, the department said they had been given an extra “planning year” or rejected because they were simply not ready to open.

But with some already contesting that claim yesterday, the debate is unlikely to be over.

“We know we were working against the tide on this, with people not wanting us to happen,” said Michael Pallante, board chairman of the NJ Virtual Academy Charter School, an online school that was told it would have to take a second planning year.

“We were ready to go, we worked really hard putting this together,” he said. “We’re disappointed, we’re disappointed for the 850 kids and families who were counting on this.”

‘High bar’ set for N.J. schools

Yesterday’s announcement had been eagerly anticipated, with a total of 32 schools on the list to potentially receive their final charters this summer, by far the biggest class yet of new schools.

Each had received preliminary approval from the state, but the process calls for the state to do a final review before a final charter is granted.

The decisions on the final charters were particularly sensitive this year, with the virtual schools on the lists and a number of suburban ones up for their final OK.

In the end, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf approved some that had been expected and rejected others, stressing a renewed process that he said would set a “high bar” for any school allowed to open and stay open.

“We must hold a high bar for any school that serves New Jersey students, and we are confident that [the approved] schools have the academic and operational components in place to provide a high-quality choice on day one,” Cerf said in a statement.

Of the nine schools that were awarded their final charter, all but one are located in urban communities. Two will use a hybrid of online learning and face-to-face teaching:

City Invincible Charter School, Camden
Knowledge A to Z Charter School, Camden
Thomas Edison Energy Charter School, Franklin (Somerset), South Brunswick and North Brunswick
Beloved Charter School, Jersey City
Merit Preparatory of Newark Charter School, Newark
Newark Prep, Newark
Paulo Freire Charter School, Newark
100 Legacy Charter School, Newark
Benjamin Banneker, Willingboro

On-line charters must wait another year

The fate of the all-online charters was the biggest question going into the announcement. Cerf was tight-lipped on what he would do with schools that were not anticipated when the state’s charter school law was enacted in 1995, but had also indicated that they could be accommodated.

Meanwhile, criticism mounted about the online schools, with a coalition of education groups urging Cerf to hold off approving them, to the point of threatening to take the administration to court. Both schools were to be working in conjunction with K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company, stirring up even more debate.

In the end, Cerf ended up landing somewhere in between, deciding not to reject them outright but also putting off a final decision for another year.

In a letter to Pallante of the NJ Virtual Academy Charter School, Cerf’s office cited a number of technical points, including the online school’s failure to put in a place a food services contract — itself an obvious challenge with students learning in their homes.

“The Board of Trustees and founders of New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School have failed to meet the necessary statutory and regulatory requirements to gain final approval for opening in 2012,” Cerf wrote in the letter.

Reached last night, Pallante said that the school — serving students in kindergarten through high school — had met all the state’s demands through what was a laborious review process, adding any that fell short could easily be rectified.

“There was always one thing or another,” said Pallante, a longtime public educator in Newark schools, most recently as principal of the Robert Treat Academy Charter School.

“But I can’t imagine there wasn’t something we could have tied together in a day or two,” he said. “We had always done what was asked of us.”

Now he’s being requested to alert families that the school will be unable to open this year, no light task with 850 students all but enrolled and another few hundred on waiting lists. The school had started hiring staff as well, including an out-of-state principal.

“We had a principal from Arkansas who had taken up residence here, ready to go,” he said. “I’m at a loss for words.”

The other online school was more specialized, focusing on at-risk high school students in four targeted communities. Operating out of the Monmouth-Ocean Special Services Commission, it had said it would seek a planning year after it was unable to secure the names of enough students.

Suburban charters denied

Other schools notable for their appearance on the rejected outright list were two that have been the subject of intense community opposition in the suburbs, sparking new debate on whether charter schools should be permitted in otherwise functioning districts — Regis Academy Charter School in Cherry Hill and Princeton International Academy Charter School in Princeton, South Brunswick, and West Windsor-Plainsboro.

Neither was likely to be ready to open this year, with both facing challenges in securing facilities. But Cerf, in his letter to Princeton International, for instance, said it wasn’t just facilities for the school that would be the state’s first public Chinese language immersion program.

“The school has failed to make even minimal progress toward compliance with criteria necessary to gain final approval,” Cerf wrote to the school’s founders.

“Based on these findings, I am denying your request for a third planning year and will not be granting a charter to Princeton International Academy Charter School.”

Efforts to reach the founders yesterday were unsuccessful.

Judith Wilson, superintendent of Princeton Regional public schools and one of Princeton International’s chief critics, said last night it was about time that the state pulled the plug. The charter had already seen two planning years, each time forcing Princeton and the other host districts to set aside funds for the school.

“There has to be an end of the line, where they’ve had multiple years to find students, set a curriculum, and find a facility,” Wilson said. “I think this was a case of the standard being fairly applied.”

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