Union appeals charter school authorization


By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Oral arguments are expected Monday in an appeal intended to close a Newark, N.J. charter school serving 300 ninth- and 10th-grade students.

LEARNING: Students at Newark Prep Charter School spend part of their day working online.

After the state education commissioner authorized Newark Prep, allowing it to open, the state’s teachers union appealed the decision, alleging that the school was a virtual school. New Jersey’s appellate division will hear the case.

Citing legal concerns and concerns about the department’s ability to oversee the virtual schools, the commissioner recently denied authorization to two virtual charter schools that would have enrolled students from across the state, according to NJ.com.

But Newark Prep is not a virtual school, so it should have no problem withstanding the appeal, said Jay Lefkowitz, an attorney representing the school.

Newark Prep’s model includes online learning, but is a brick-and-mortar building where students have cafeteria lunches, after-school activities, direct instruction with teachers, gym class, and access to nurses, social workers and guidance counselors — “everything that makes a school a school,” said school founder Patrick Byrne.

Students spend three hours in the morning working independently at their online classes in the school, which allows them to move at their own pace, while teachers circle through the classroom helping and supervising. In the afternoon, students spend three hours in content classrooms learning directly from teachers. Students also meet with small advisory groups a few times a day.

For each course, students spend half their time at the computer and half their time in a content classroom — for math, they might spend Mondays, Wednesday, and every other Friday in the lab, but Tuesdays, Thursday, and every other Friday in the classroom, said Sonn Sam, head of school.

The advantage to this model is that students can move at their own pace, and teachers know immediately whether students understand the day’s material, Sam said.

“The data tracks it moment by moment, what they’re doing, what they’re learning, what assignments they’re learning, the content that they’re all getting,” he said. “If an English teacher … found students were having trouble with prepositions, the data will break that down for the teacher, period by period, to know that Period One is having a real issue with prepositions. The teacher knows they have to review this tomorrow.”

The school is in its second year, and the master plan is to serve students in grades six through 12 and have them serve internships during their junior year, Byrne said. Through the internships, they’ll learn how to interview for a professional position and work in a professional environment.

“It can turn into summer jobs for them,” Byrne said. “It can help them discover their career path so they’re not clueless.”

“Our model includes NDJOE approved curriculum, a rich advisory program, college/career preparation, and internship opportunities. Our 300+ students are in our building with state-certified teachers, administration, and staff from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day, five days a week, 182 days a year,” Adriana Meherji, president of the school’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement. “Anyone who thinks we are running a virtual school simply hasn’t been to Newark Prep, or worse yet, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

The New Jersey Education Association supports charter schools under the state’s 1995 law, said Christy Kanaby, associate director for public relations.

“What we have concerns with specifically in this situation is the creation of a virtual charter,” she said. “The Newark Prep school is a virtual charter school that is being housed in a building. They’re not going to have the traditional classrooms, but they’re still going to have the virtual experience. Our appeal is questioning whether or not the commissioner of education possesses the authority to grant (authorization to) these blended charter schools that rely on online instruction without it having to go through the legislature.”

The union’s concern is twofold, Kanaby said. The union said blended charter schools, like virtual charter schools, are not permitted under the state’s charter school law, and that virtual charter schools are less effective than traditional schools.

Whether the union would support virtual charter schools if the state law permitted it, Kanaby said it was “too early to tell.”

Lefkowitz said he expects the appeal to fail.

“There have been other lawsuits that have challenged the commissioner’s approval of a charter school, and they have generally failed because, generally speaking, the commissioner gets a lot of discretion for the decision that he makes, because he’s the expert in the area,” Lefkowitz said. “He’s the one charged by the New Jersey legislature to make these judgments about what kind of charter school is consistent with the legislature’s objectives for education.”

“Generally speaking, this type of challenge is really an uphill challenge.”

Lefkowitz will argue Newark Prep’s case: that the commissioner acted within his authority in granting the charter, that the law does not prohibit blended learning, and that the union doesn’t have a legal right to make the appeal, which should be made by the local school board.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org

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