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9-15-14 Education in the News

Star LedgerIn Hoboken, a fight over racial balance in charters: Moran… “Our district schools don’t look like our communities,” says Carlos Perez, head of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “What we should be asking is why families are leaving, and what we can do to attract them back to public education.”  Hoboken’s answer is to go after Hola. It might find that working to improve its own offerings would be more effective.


By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board The Star-Ledger
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on September 14, 2014 at 9:00 AM, updated September 14, 2014 at 9:09 AM

If you want to understand how the backlash against charter schools is a curse to children in New Jersey, look to Hoboken.

The district, whose students are struggling, is doing its utmost to sabotage an innovative charter school whose students are thriving.

The charter is a dual-language elementary school known as Hola, where kids are immersed in Spanish from kindergarten when their young brains absorb languages easily.

Like all charters, Hola is on a tight budget. It spends $11,000 per student, compared to $27,000 in the district schools, and charters get no money for facilities.

So Hola’s classrooms are cramped, its offices are like closets, and some of its hallways are cluttered with boxes. Some classrooms are separated from others by flimsy collapsible walls. And the only way Hola can afford rent is to share the building with the Boys and Girls Club, which uses it after school hours.

“We’re bursting at the seams,” says Jennifer Sargent, the executive director. “The cafeteria doubles as a classroom.”

Whites in Hoboken have fled the district in droves, thanks to its long record of academic failure and racial imbalance.

But the kids at Hola are focused and thriving. Teachers have authority here, and classrooms are orderly, bright and decorated with student projects. By sixth grade, these kids are learning comfortably in both English and Spanish, a gift that will yield lifetime benefits.

And their test scores are rocking: They are in the top quarter of academic achievement in New Jersey, according to the state, and the top 1 percent when measured against peers of the same demographic.

So, what, exactly is the problem?

* * *

The core dispute is about race. Whites in Hoboken have fled the district in droves, thanks to its long record of academic failure and racial imbalance. The city is 82 percent white, but all the district elementary schools are majority African-American and Latino.

Hola is something in between. Its minority population is 37 percent, twice the rate in the city, but far below the levels in district. At Hoboken’s most segregated district school, Connors, 95 percent of the students are minority.

The district argues that Hola is aggravating racial segregation in the district schools by giving white families an out.

“They are pulling white students away,” says Eric Harrison, the attorney for Hoboken schools. “The mix we are seeing in charter schools does not mirror, or even come close to, the mix we see in public schools.”

So the district has filed suit to block Hola’s expansion into seventh and eighth grade, on the shaky assumption that its white students will then enroll in district schools.

When you look at Hola’s history, this tactic is enough to make you scream. The founders originally took their dual-language idea to the district and asked to help set up a program under district control at Connors, with all its segregation. The district said no.

Hola then went to the state and asked for permission to rig its admission lottery so that poor and minority kids would have an advantage. The state told them no.

So they hustled. They knocked on doors. They went to public housing projects and handed out leaflets. They tried.

And in the end, they got twice the portion of minority kids as the city’s population. And progress continues. This year’s kindergarten class is 41 percent minority.

So ask yourself: Is this the profile of a school that is trying to block out minority kids?

Even the district can’t bring itself to make that claim. Its suit is aimed at the state for granting this expansion, not at Hola for accepting it.

“Hola hasn’t done anything wrong,” says Harrison, the district’s attorney. “We’re not claiming they are the bad guys.”

If you are searching for villain, consider the district itself. It is spending $50,000 on this lawsuit, forcing Hola to spend $15,000 so far, and diverting its board and staff from the educational mission.

And the dirty secret is that the district itself is aggravating segregation by allowing white families who live near Connors to travel across town and enroll in other schools.

The mechanism is a perverse district choice program. In Montclair, parents rank their choices and are enrolled with the goal of achieving racial balance. In Hoboken, choice allows white families to flee from Connors, making segregation worse.

“That does happen a lot,” school board president Ruth Tyroler concedes. “It happens because it’s human nature.”

* * *

The fight over racial and economic mix at charter schools is playing out in cities all over New Jersey. And now the state Department of Education is changing its policy to adapt.

The catalyst was Newark, where Superintendent Cami Anderson set up a system of universal enrollment to ensure that charters take their fair share of at-risk kids. Parents choose from a menu of district and charter schools, and she assigns students to ensure rough balance.

That shocked many people in the education world, because it seemed to break state law, which requires a blind process in assigning students to charters, typically by relying on an admissions lottery. The idea was to block charters from showing favoritism, to give everyone family a fair shot at those seats.

But once the state allowed Newark to put its finger on the scale, to give at-risk students a better shot at charter seats, a precedent was set.

Now David Hespe, the acting commissioner of education, says that all charter schools can use weighted lotteries to enroll more at-risk kids. That’s a major policy change certain to draw legal challenges, but it could resolve fights like the one in Hoboken.

As for segregation in schools, it may be time to turn the tables and blame the districts. After all, in Hoboken, as in many cities, white flight long preceded the birth of charter schools.

“Our district schools don’t look like our communities,” says Carlos Perez, head of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “What we should be asking is why families are leaving, and what we can do to attract them back to public education.”

Hoboken’s answer is to go after Hola. It might find that working to improve its own offerings would be more effective.

Tom Moran may be reached at tmoran@starledger.com or (973) 392-5728.


NJ Spotlight- Teachers Union Heads Get First-Hand Look at NJ School-Reform Hot Spots…Two national leaders visits Camden and Newark districts, tout organized labor’s relevance in local debates over state initiatives


John Mooney | September 15, 2014

One was the visit to Camden by the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. The other was a stop in Newark by the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, the woman who led the nation’s largest teachers strike in decades.

While the visits were not coordinated -- the two unions are not affiliated -- but the timing of the two events on Friday and over the weekend was nonetheless notable for what are inarguably the two hot spots for school reform in New Jersey.

Teachers unions in both state-run districts have been right in the middle of intense debate over reforms being pursued by Gov. Chris Christie. In Camden, the union tried to fight off layoffs last spring. In Newark, the union has fought school closures and consolidations.

But with the influence – or at least strategies -- of those unions sometimes questioned even within their own ranks, the two national union leaders tried to change that conversation this weekend and made a pitch for organized labor’s continued relevance.

“The bottom line is we are at a turning point in this country, and (teachers) are saying they are no longer a respected voice, they are becoming punching bags for governors,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA, said in an interview this weekend. “We’re saying enough is enough.”

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, spoke at a forum at Rutgers- Newark on Saturday alongside Mayor Ras Baraka. She pulled few punches.

“We’ve been following Newark for some time, and nothing has changed,” Lewis said after the forum. “We are seeing the same attacks on publicly-funded public education … and the same top-down mandates that don’t work.

“It’s command and control, something they are not even teaching in business school anymore.”

‘An incredible tale of two schools’

On a cross-country tour of schools that started in Fairbanks, Alaska, Eskelsen Garcia had asked to visit a school in New Jersey that faced the challenges of poverty and also was at the center of the storm over school-reform efforts. She was pointed to Pyne Poynt Middle School in Camden.

That same day, Eskelsen Garcia also had a chance to visit a school that was neither of those things: West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, an hour’s drive away.

It was a notable contrast, apparent not just in the streets she traveled to and from the schools. At the high school, she reported, she toured orchestra rooms, science labs, art rooms, and “state of the art” track facilities.

“At Pyne Poynt, the principal and faculty followed me around, and they were just so proud that their school had just been painted,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “They had nothing new they could show off.”

She was pleased about one thing the two schools had in common: “After looking at this incredible tale of two schools, I asked the kids the same thing: What do you love most about your school? And they said the same thing: their teachers.”

“What we need is legislatures and governors to understand that those kids in Pyne Poynt deserve the same as West Windsor, and those in West Windsor deserve no less,” she said.

And she said there is very much a role for unions to play in pressing those issues and others, including what she called the “toxic” effect of testing.

“We are seeing little rebellions growing up organically,” she said. “Sometimes it is parents, like those at Pyne Poynt, and sometimes it is just groups of teachers who say we don’t want to do this to our children anymore.”

Chicago v. Newark

Karen Lewis knows a thing or two about militant teacher unions, having led the Chicago Teachers Union to an eight-day strike in 2012 that shut down the nation’s third-largest school district over issues like merit pay and teacher evaluations.

And, this weekend, she joined activists in Newark in trying to spark some of that same fire in the wake of protests and a boycott that marked this year’s opening of city schools under state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s “One Newark” reforms.

“We’re seeing this everywhere, where outside forces are making huge decisions that affect people with the notion that neighborhood schools are no longer needed,” Lewis said Saturday following a forum hosted by the Abbott Leadership Institute.

“We have turned schools into, basically, shopping malls, where you have to shop for your school as opposed to being to have good schools in every neighborhood.”

The day before, she had visited Newark’s Barringer High School and called the experience “very sad.”

“The school (promoted) science, engineering, arts and math, and I didn’t see one science lab,” she said.

But she hedged on commenting on the state of the Newark Teachers Union, which is a powerful force in the city but has faced sharp divisions within its own membership, both over the contract it settled with Anderson and its relative silence during the latest protests.

After the forum, Lewis spoke privately with several leaders of the Newark Education Workers caucus, a dissenting voice in the union that opposed the contract and actively joined in the protests. The caucus now holds a majority of seats on the union’s executive board, but failed in unseating longtime president Joseph Del Grosso.

“I’m not going to come here and talk about what the Newark union should be doing,” Lewis said. “That’s something they work out among themselves. That’s how we did it in Chicago.”



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