The topic of charter schools has been a hot issue in New Jersey educational and political circles for the past half decade.
In the mile square city, the Hoboken Charter School (HCS), a preK-12 school, has entered its fourth year of operation. It's one of the original 17 charter schools in the state, and the school's coordinators said this week that in their first four years, the successes far outweighed the challenges. But, they added, there are still many obstacles and misconceptions about charter schools that must be cleared up.
This week the state Department of Education was at the HCS and extended its charter for an additional five years. Co-coordinators Jill Singleton and Mark Silberberg Tuesday discussed their 163-page Charter Renewal Application and to gave their thoughts about the school's inaugural years and its future.
Charter schools are public schools entirely funded by state and local taxpayer money. The difference between charter schools and other public schools is that charter schools do not report to city's Board of Education. The school has a board of trustees that handles questions curriculum and administration.
Clearing up misconceptions
According to Singleton, there is still a large portion of the public that doesn't realize what a charter school is and how it functions, and those misconceptions have been one of the biggest obstacles in swaying public opinion in its favor. "There's still a lot of people out there that think [the HCS] is a private school that acts as a brain drain for the public schools by taking their best students," said Singleton from the HCS office Tuesday. "And we would just like people to know that none of that is true. We have worked hard to reach out to the community and make sure that our school reflects the diversity of the city."
HCS does not select its students according to academic performance. Every student in the system who wishes to enroll in the school can enter a lottery before the school year starts. Names are drawn at random and the students are selected with no preference given to any socioeconomic group or skill level.
Currently, 16 percent of the HCS enrollment is comprised of special need students who have learning disabilities or other impairments. The national average for special needs students is approximately 11 percent. In Hoboken almost 16 percent of students have special needs, which mirrors the school's statistics of the city's demographics.
"We have an obligation to the community to make sure that the pool of applicants matches as closely as possible the community in which the school is in," said Singleton.
The school opened its doors in 1997 after parents who wanted an alternative to Hoboken's public schools began meeting to put it together. The previous year, another group of parents had opened the Elysian Charter School. Both schools stress community involvement.
At the time, the Hoboken Board of Education was split about the value of charter schools. Some took the proposals as an insult and detriment to public schools, while others said that the option kept parents in Hoboken who otherwise might have fled to the suburbs once their children reached school-age.
Educational researchers have said that competition from charter schools makes public schools keep up with educational changes.
The charge that the schools are elitist is only one fallacy they've been stung by. Silberberg said that some people believe that parents serve as teachers in the schools. Actually, the schools require state certification of all of its teachers.
Students at HCS are responsible for the same student proficiency tests that all public school children in the fourth, eighth and 11th grades must take. These tests are intended to measure proficiency in respect to the core curriculum standards set by state statute.
Goals and successes
The school's Charter Renewal Application lays out how the HCS is different than other area schools. "The school is challenging the traditional 'one size fits all' philosophy towards schooling and is committed toward a highly individualized program for every student," the application reads.
According to the document there are no more than 20 students in a classroom and two teachers are assigned to each one.
One of the school's major objectives is to teach through community outreach. "We want to teach our students a sense of social justice and to teach them to realize that they are empowered to make changes in their neighborhood and their world," said Silberberg.
Singleton and Silberberg both believe HCS has experienced tremendous success with school and community-wide service learning projects.
One example of such a project was the March on Washington Street/Martin Luther King Volunteer Service Fair last year. The event lured more than 1,000 students from all area schools. It culminated with a guest speaking engagement with Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to integrate into the all-white school system under the protection of the National Guard.
Another event the school sponsored was the NJ Empty Bowls Supper where members of the public attended a simple soup and bread supper and bought their bowls. Matching funds supplied by the New Jersey Coalition for Service Learning resulted in an excess of $5,000 for the Hoboken Homeless Shelter.
Another innovative difference between district public schools and the HCS is multi-age and cross-age learning, where kindergarten and first grade, and the second and third grades are combined. In these classes students engage in the multi-age classroom for the entire day, moving between and among classroom groupings that support their independent and individual level of preparedness for a given subject. For example, a second grade student who excels in language arts might be placed in a small reading group comprised of four third grade students, and then may be put in with second graders for math.
"It's good when you might be having trouble in one subject and someone older can help you," said second/third grader Stone Coggins, Singleton's son, Tuesday. "Then when someone else has a problem in some other subject I can help them."
Even with these successes, HCS still faces notable problems into the future. Most significant is the lack of equity in funding for charter schools as compared to other district schools.
A charter school by state statute gets only 90 percent of the funding that a district school of the same enrollment would get. The charter schools also do not get funding for facilities. HCS is spending 10 percent of its budget on rent.
"These funding shortcomings pose significant challenges with respect to the establishment of a salary scale for the staff that will allow individuals to make long-term commitment," the renewal application states.
According the Silberberg, HCS has to hire teachers at $9,000 less than what they would be making if they worked at another area school. "It makes it hard because before we hire our first teacher or purchase our first desk we only have 80 percent of the funds that other schools have," said Silberberg. "Then when you factor in the small classes with two teachers in the classroom, it's hard to pay competitive salaries."
Another challenge is that the school currently rents space in two schools - the Joseph F. Brandt Middle School and the A. J. Demarest Middle School. The Brandt School houses the second/third grade programs and Demarest houses the rest. The schools are about a 10-minute walk apart, and HCS does not have access to its own gym or auditorium, depriving it of a space that is large enough for the entire school to have an assembly or a guest speaker.
"It would be nice to have just one school so we don't have to walk back and forth all the time," said Stone Coggins. "We would really like to have place to play sports and to have an auditorium of our own."