With charter schools popping up all around the county, it seems like they've been in existence forever.
With charter schools popping up all around the county, it seems like they've been in existence forever. In reality, however, it was less than five years ago, in January 1996, when the state first approved the legislation to allow private citizens to put together their own public school. The first charter schools in New Jersey opened in the fall of 1997.
Today there are nine charter schools in Hudson County: seven in Jersey City and two in Hoboken. More are on the way.
Under the current law, parents and educators seeking more control over their children's education are allowed to form a charter school with public money. Kids compete for spots by lottery and pay no tuition. Administrators are free from the grip of teachers' unions. Charter schools do have to adhere to state codes; for example, they must provide special education instruction. But they are not under the jurisdiction of the particular town's Board of Education, although the board funnels state aid to the schools - 90 percent of the allotment for each child enrolled. Charter schools have their own unique curriculum and their own of board of trustees, and ultimately offer parents an economically viable alternative to public school.
Some of the parents using the charter schools have been those who were wary of urban public schools and would have left the cities if not for the option. However, because some of the charter schools have rented space in the regular public schools, parents have seen some of the more positive programs offered by the regular public schools and become less wary of them. And both sets of schools have learned from each other.
Among the first
The Hoboken Charter School was among the first in the county. Located on the third floor of Demarest Middle School on Fourth and Garden streets, the school was founded by professional educators, parents, and community members three years ago. It was developed with community service in mind.
"Concepts and skills that are taught in the classroom are put to use through problem-solving opportunities in the real world," explained Jill Singleton, the school's co-founder and co-coordinator. "Kids learn by doing."
Singleton added, "Charter schools allow more equity in terms of people having choices. It used to be people who couldn't afford private schools didn't have another option. Now parents have the opportunity to shop around and increase their chances of finding a school that best suits their children's learning needs."
Hoboken resident Elynn Cohen has a son in the pre-kindergarten program at Hoboken Charter School.
"We were not in a position where we could pay for a private school," said Cohen, who has lived in Hoboken since 1987. "Hoboken Charter School had a lot of the qualities we were looking for: small classes, excellent teachers and high academic standards."
The advent of charter schools has had a positive effect on the community, said Maureen Singleton, Jill Singleton's mother, who has been selling real estate in Hoboken since 1974.
"The charter schools have had a really positive effect on the attitude of the people, and Hoboken as a community," explained Singleton. "A lot of people felt like they could only stay in Hoboken until their children were school age, but now, with charter schools, they feel like they have viable options. It used to be a very transient town. Now there is more viability of Hoboken as a long-term community. It's ironic because the biggest complaint these days is the need for more housing built for families instead of more educational options."
Private schools have also offered parents an affordable alternative in Jersey City. Joanne Youmans, the executive assistant to Jersey City's State District Superintendent, Richard DiPatri, acts as the liaison between the city's public and private schools.
"Charter schools are becoming more popular," said Youmans. "It's competition, and competition is healthy. The initial intent was that they would be like a small laboratory where schools could try out innovative programs and then we could learn from them. Many of the public schools are also overcrowded, so charter schools might alleviate overcrowding. And the parents seem interested in them as another option."
While charter schools are sometimes seen as competition, in Jersey City there is little tension between the public and charter schools.
"We try and work with them and help the charter schools" said Youmans. "Dr. DiPatri holds regular meetings with the charter school administrators, and if they need something I try and reach out and help them."
Soaring Heights in Jersey City is just one of the schools with whom Youmans works. Founded in September 1997, Soaring Heights, located at 317 Third St., has 118 students and currently offers kindergarten through sixth grade. Like most charter schools, Soaring Heights plans to expand adding an additional grade each year.
"I believer that charter schools have something to bring to the local districts, and that the local districts have something to teach the charter schools," said Claudia Zuorick, the communications and administrative consultant for Soaring Heights. "We all need to learn to work together."
Zuorick has worked as a teacher and guidance counselor in the Jersey City school district for 32 years. According to Zuorick, part of what separates Soaring Heights from other public schools is that the staff manages the school.
"The teachers are involved in all aspects of the school," said Zuorick. "And that gives the teachers a sense of belonging."
Another benefit of charter schools is that "They offer lower socioeconomic folks an alternative to the public school that in the past might not have been available," said Zuorick.
Smaller classes also enable teachers to give each student more attention. At Soaring Heights, each class is made up of approximately 16 students. While Hoboken Charter School emphasizes service learning, Soaring Heights focuses on students' behavior.
"Discipline is important," said Zuorick. "And developing self structure for the students. We think that that is important. And if you have discipline and self structure, then the kids can learn."
And apparently, discipline pays off. Soaring Heights students recently earned impressive scores on the fourth grade state wide Elementary School Proficiency Assessment. Among charter schools, the students scored second highest in the state.
Jeffrey Kaplowitz, a broker associate at Century 21 Plaza Realty, said that he wasn't sure if charter schools have affected the real estate market in Jersey City yet.
"I think that people who decide to move to an area will take a good look at the amenities of that area, like education," said Kaplowitz. "But charter schools are still an experiment. It's really too soon to tell what effect they will have on the city."