The 1995 New Jersey legislation that allowed groups of parents to create their own "charter schools" seemed almost custom-designed for Hudson, where parents with high expectations had moved in order to get a great Manhattan commute, but had believed the local public schools to be sub-par compared to what they'd experienced growing up in the suburbs. For a while, some parents believed their only options were to pay for private schools, or move.
But there is a wealth of choices now. Some parent groups have helped create charter schools. Others, who were involved in that process, have actually learned more about the many programs offered by the regular public schools and become more comfortable with them. Some private and parochial schools have considered adding grade levels to accommodate the additional families who are staying in these urban areas.
"Every time you have the opportunity to offer more of a choice, you have to take it," said Hoboken Board of Education President David Anthony, who has been a vocal supporter of both charter schools and the regular public schools, last week. "Another choice will be the interdistrict school choice program the state is trying to offer." In that program, students from any school district may some day get to choose any public school in another district to attend.
The biggest increase in educational options has been in Jersey City and Hoboken, where a total of 12 charter schools have opened since 1995, and where two more will open this fall. (Hudson County has approximately one fifth of the 72 approved charter schools in the state.) To complement them, there is a bevy of parochial and private schools, not to mention public schools, a county technical/vocational high school, and a public magnet high school for Jersey City's high achievers.
Cities like Weehawken, Union City, West New York and North Bergen have failed to draw charter schools. Local educators said that this may be because of the hard work it takes for parents to coalesce and create them. Hoboken and Jersey City saw the real estate boom first, and with it an influx of professionals with high expectations. As young professionals move to the waterfronts of other Hudson towns, they may decide to work on their own schools as well.
Carlos Perez, the president of the Union City Board of Education, said he hadn't heard anyone expressing an interest in starting a charter school in Union City. He noted that his district has been cited nationally for its technology programs, and that they are expanding to deal with overcrowding.
Students from those towns who don't opt for the existing public schools can find a private or parochial school.
There aren't many students from other towns in Hoboken and Jersey City's charter schools, as most of the charter schools hope to lure students from their own district first. One educator said that this is because of the funding. Since it comes from the students' home school district, it's less complicated when charter school founders only have one district to deal with. (Charter schools are publicly-funded and charge no tuition.)
High schools in demand
With the increase in young children in Jersey City and Hoboken, the biggest demand for educational options has been in the lower grades. But as children have moved up through the charter schools, some of them have been adding grades. One school, the Hoboken Charter School, now has ninth through 12th grades, and is presently the only charter school in the county with those grades. However, in September, another school will serve those grades. The CREATE (Center for Responsible Economic Academic Technical Excellence) Charter High School will open in Jersey City and serve only grades nine through 12.
Both schools intend to take students in their own towns first. The Pre-K through 12 Hoboken Charter School will hold a lottery this month for spots in all of its grades. CREATE currently has 40 applications and intends to fill a total of 125 spaces.
CREATE founder Steve Lipski said last week, "I can give you a quote from one of our applications: 'I was out of my mind thinking about where my child would go to school. I was considering moving out of the city.'" The quote is from a parent of a student attending middle school at the Gateway Charter School, Lipski said.
Part of the lure of the charter schools is the focus on parental involvement, and in some cases, the overall philosophy of the school - in Hoboken, both schools emphasize involvement in the community. But those schools aren't the only ones with special programs.
The county's parochial high schools and the regular public high schools provide programs some of the smaller schools can't offer, such as before- and after-school day care, superior athletic programs, special education programs, larger facilities, and in some cases, large-scale SAT readiness programs. The parochial schools, of course, also offer religious education. In some cases, they also offer a same-sex environment. For instance, the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Hoboken, the only parochial high school in Hoboken, only enrolls girls. There are several all-boys and all-girls high schools in Jersey City.
For a change of pace, there is also the county vocational-technical high school in North Bergen, and for Jersey City high achievers, there is the public McNair Academic High School.
And there are regular non-parochial private schools. The Hudson School in Hoboken, which serves grades five through 12, has been open for 20 years and enjoys an excellent reputation, even internationally. That school has been known for offering programs such as Japanese, Greek, Latin, German, philosophy, contemporary affairs, and an outstanding drama program.
"There's no one-size-fits-all high school," said Hudson School founder Suellen Newman last week. "Some students benefit from an intimate environment with passionate teachers. And many children also want to be in a very multi-ethnic international school with many different foreign languages. Those would be options we would provide. High school students, like any age group, are [diverse]."
These educational options are keeping families in town, and one real estate agency includes a list of educational options prominently on its website. Scott Selleck, the broker/president of New Jersey Gold Coast Real Estate in Jersey City, said, "I send packets out weekly about the schools in Jersey City and Hoboken. It's an important thing for families. I can tell you that the fact that Jersey City and Hoboken have charter schools and excellent private schools is a major draw. People gravitate to an area where they can use the charter schools."
Nobody has questioned that the increase in options has helped, and so has the competition among the schools.
"The master plan is to make the public schools more competitive," said David Anthony. "Sometimes people move just because of the schools. You have to approach it with a business mentality. I think the charter schools have been a healthy experience."
"I think there are a lot of really interesting things going on in the community, including in the public schools," said Mark Silberberg of the Hoboken Charter School. "I think the charter schools encourage the other schools to sell themselves. We encourage parents to consider all of their options."
Besides the competitive aspect, some of the private and charter schools have run programs that have involved children from all of the other schools in the community.
"That's a core part of our mission," Silberberg said. "We've done a number of projects, like the March of Washington Street [for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day], that involved students from the other schools. In the spring, we have our Empty Bowl Supper to raise awareness for hunger and homelessness."
Researchers have found that competition from charter schools has spurred some changes in the other public schools, although they were not so sure yet about large-scale changes. A report done by the Center for Civic Innovation in Manhattan, working with SUNY professors and Ph.D. candidates, studied the impact of charter school competition on the public schools in Jersey City, Massachusetts, Trenton, and Washington, D.C. They found that "many superintendents and principals are responding even to muffled competition by making changes designed to produce more appealing and effective schools ... Superintendents have also made changes in response to specific features of charter schools that are attractive to parents."
Some of the changes may actually have been in the works before. Hoboken High School's academically-rigorous interbaccalaureate program for honors students, and its outstanding athletic programs, go back years. On the other hand, it has only been performing school plays for a few years (this fact notwithstanding, they won a state award for their school musical two years ago).
So far, so good
The first batch of charter schools that were approved by the state in 1997 recently received their renewals, including the Elysian Charter School in Hoboken, which hosts grades K through 5. The old charter was good for four years; the new one runs for five.
Charter schools also received approval from the state in another form. In 1999, it was announced that the state of New Jersey has received $2,763,120 in federal grant money to give to groups that were starting charter schools. Since 1997, the state had already gotten $5,710,488 in federal funds for charter schools.
Scott Selleck, the real estate broker, noted the recent renewal of school charters last week. "They have great programs," he said. "There are smaller classes but not as much red tape - and there's a lot of passion put into the school. I think that's why families are staying in Hoboken."