In Newark, some families reject superintendent’s call to close four charter schools while other residents applaud it

Newark residents and elected officials are taking sides in a roiling debate over the future of four charter schools, with charter critics calling for the schools to be closed while some families are pleading for them to remain open.

The schools — M.E.T.S., People’s Prep, Roseville Community, and University Heights — are expected to learn their fates next week. That is when the state will announce whether it will let the schools continue to operate or force some or all of them to close their doors after this school year.

For now, the state’s upcoming decision has ignited a war of words in Newark. Roger León, the superintendent who oversees Newark’s traditional schools but not charter schools, sent letters to the state education commissioner last month arguing that all four schools should be shuttered. He also urged the state to stop new charter schools from opening unless they serve “a specific educational need.”

Charter school advocates denounced León’s recommendations in their own letters to the commissioner. On Monday, Mayor Ras Baraka jumped to León’s defense after anonymous flyers appeared across the city attacking León and warning residents “Your school could be next!”

Newark Superintendent Roger León listened as charter school advocates and critics voiced their opinions at the board meeting. (Devna Bose/Chalkbeat)

The dispute spilled over into Tuesday’s Newark Board of Education meeting, though neither León nor the Newark school board control the fate of the schools, which fall under the purview of the state. That did not stop members of the public from making arguments for and against the schools during the meeting.

Parent Jessica Reyes said that enrolling her son at People’s Prep was “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” Reyes said school staffers work closely with her 17-year-old son, who has autism, and the attention he received made him more independent and allowed his confidence to “skyrocket.” She said she was dismayed to read León’s letter about People’s Prep, which says the school “fails to address the educational needs” of students with disabilities and that “there is nothing distinctive or innovative” about the school.

“I disagree wholeheartedly,” Reyes told León and the school board Tuesday.

But several local activists and community leaders made the opposite argument, saying they strongly support León’s call for the state to close the schools. They echoed the superintendent’s argument that the spread of charter schools, which now serve more than a third of Newark public-school students, has sapped funding from traditional schools.

“Charter schools drain our district,” Roberto Cabanas, an organizer with New Jersey Communities United, an advocacy group focused on health care, housing, and education. 

He noted that former state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson closed numerous low-performing traditional schools when the state controlled Newark’s school system. Now that the city’s elected school board has regained control of the district, its chosen superintendent is demanding that charter schools be held to the same standard, Cabanas said.

“They feared the day they would be held accountable by a community,” he said at the meeting. “That day has arrived.”

All charter schools must periodically apply for state approval to continue operating, as the four Newark schools recently did. During the renewal process, the state education department visits the schools, conducts interviews, and reviews each school’s application, academic data, and financial records. The state has shut down several low-performing Newark charter schools in the past. 

M.E.T.S. and University Heights face the greatest risk of closure; the state put both schools on probation last year due to poor academic performance and safety concerns. 

University Heights Charter School supporters showed up with signs to the meeting. (Devna Bose/Chalkbeat)

University Heights, which opened in 2006, performs worse than the Newark Public Schools average on state tests and ranks among the bottom 5% of high-poverty schools in New Jersey. Still, families are publicly standing by the school, arguing that test scores do not capture the essence of the school — a close-knit community where staff members care for children and “parents stick together,” said Tyola Hughes.

“My experience with University Heights is that it’s a community, a family,” said Hughes, whose son in eighth grade.

Hughes was one of dozens of parents and students who traveled by school bus and cars to Tuesday’s board meeting. They carried University Heights signs into the meeting, but no one from the group spoke during the public comment portion.

The school’s executive director, Tamara Cooper, said in a statement that she was disappointed León did not reach out to administrators or speak with parents before calling for the school to be closed. She added that the school’s midyear test scores recently showed improvements. In an interview, parent Glen McEwen added that the school has filled his son with “light and happiness.” 

“If that’s taken away, I don’t know how he would cope,” McEwen said. 

The other two schools appear to be in a stronger position. A larger percentage of Roseville Community students met state expectations on the 2018 tests than the Newark district average, though district students improved their scores at a higher rate than Roseville’s. 

People’s Prep has a higher graduation rate than the district while serving a larger share of students with disabilities, the school’s lawyer wrote in a letter to the state. The lawyer alleged that León, who has made clear his desire to expand the district, wants the school to be shut down so he can reclaim the building space that People’s Prep rents from the district. (In his own letter, León said that People’s Prep’s presence in the shared building has prevented a district high school from expanding.)

León did not address the schools at Tuesday’s meeting or his recommendation that the state close them. While a few parents spoke in the schools’ favor, several other community members applauded León’s stance against the schools.

“He’s made bold decisions to advocate for the closure of these schools,” said Deborah Smith Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP, adding that the expansion of charter schools in Newark has put a “tremendous strain” on the city’s traditional schools.

The state is expected to inform schools of its decision on Monday.