State will close one Newark charter school targeted by city’s superintendent but keep three others open

The state is shutting down a troubled charter school with campuses in Newark and Jersey City, one of four schools that Newark’s schools chief had urged the state to close.

M.E.T.S. Charter School must cease operations after this school year due to persistent concerns about low academic achievement, chaotic classrooms, and high staff turnover, the state’s education commissioner said in a letter Monday that was obtained by Chalkbeat. The move leaves roughly 700 students to find new placements for the fall. 

M.E.T.S. was one of four charter schools up for renewal by the state that Newark’s superintendent, Roger León, asked the commissioner to close. Instead, the state has decided to keep open the other three schools: People’s Prep, Roseville Community, and University Heights, according to sources at the schools.

University Heights, which enrolls nearly 900 students, has been under close state monitoring due to poor performance. It will remain on probation, according to a letter the school’s leader sent to families on Monday.

The state has now shuttered at least five Newark charter schools since 2017, including the high school run by M.E.T.S. that must close its doors after the school year ends in June.

The state’s decision to close M.E.T.S.’s two campuses stemmed from their poor academic performance and insufficient improvement even after being put on probation last year, according to the letter from Commissioner Lamont Repollet to the chairman of the school’s board of trustees. In addition, the school exhibits serious safety issues, a “culture of low expectations,” and financial challenges caused by shrinking enrollment, the letter said.

“After a comprehensive review, I have determined that M.E.T.S. is not operating in compliance with its charter and has failed to provide strong educational programs, sustained organizational stability and financial strength,” Repollet wrote.

A state spokesman could not confirm Repollet’s decision on Monday evening, and the lead administrator of M.E.T.S. did not immediately respond to an email.

This year’s renewal process touched off a heated debate in Newark after León called on the state to shutter the four charter schools. More than a third of public-school students in Newark attend charter schools, which are independently operated but publicly funded.

Mayor Ras Baraka and the Newark Teachers Union sided with León, arguing that charter schools drain funding from traditional schools and fail to serve a fair share of students with special needs. Charter school proponents fired back, calling León’s recommendation misguided and insisting that charter schools give families more high-quality options to choose from. Dozens of sign-carrying University Heights parents and staff members attended last week’s Newark Board of Education meeting in a show of support for the school.

The New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes cooperation between Newark’s traditional and charter schools, issued a statement Monday evening praising Repollet’s decision.

“We applaud Commissioner Repollet for looking past the rhetoric and focusing on the individual merits of each of the four Newark charters up for renewal,” said Kyle Rosenkrans, the group’s executive director. “We are still awaiting the details, but by renewing three and closing one, we think he made decisions that balanced the interests of Newark children and families against the urgent need for accountability for performance that all charters sign up for.”

M.E.T.S. has faced serious challenges since opening its Newark high school in 2017. 

That October, shortly after a student brought a loaded handgun to the campus, M.E.T.S. officials said they would shut down the newly launched school. Instead, state officials blocked that plan and put M.E.T.S. on probation.

The state sanctioned M.E.T.S. again last May, putting the school back on probation and ordering it to create an improvement plan. Yet the school continued to struggle. It was unable to get its new building in Newark ready by the start of the school year, forcing students to temporarily take classes off-site. And in a series of visits in late 2019 and early 2020, state officials observed “low level” teaching, disruptive student behavior, and “a lack of mutual respect” between staff and students, according to Repollet’s letter.

The discipline challenges came after M.E.T.S. issued nearly 360 suspensions last school year, mostly to its Newark students. There were also multiple reports of “fighting and gang violence within the school,” Repollet said.

Even though M.E.T.S. has put in place an improvement plan, the state is not confident “that the changes are significant enough to ensure the security and safety of the students, staff and community,” Repollet wrote.

After school Monday, several students at M.E.T.S.’s Newark campus said that no one had told them the school was in danger of closing. One sophomore, who said the school was “chaotic” last year, recalled the school dismissing students early due to an out-of-control fight. But he said the school had become more calm and orderly this year, and he worried about what will happen if it closes.

“I’ll be so mad,” he said. “I have no school to go to.”

University Heights, which opened in 2006 and has three campuses, has also grappled with low achievement. Its state test scores trail the Newark Public Schools average and it ranks among the lowest-performing schools in New Jersey. 

Tamara Cooper, the school’s executive director, called the state’s decision to keep the school open but on probation “a great victory for our scholars,” in a letter to the school community on Monday. She also announced her resignation, citing family issues, and promised to help find a new school leader.

A University Heights employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told Chalkbeat on Monday that serious problems persist at the school, including limited support for students with disabilities and an abundance of substitute teachers.

“Many issues remain that impact the children’s ability to learn and teachers’ ability to teach,” the employee said.