People’s Prep to leave Bard High School building as Newark Public Schools looks to expand amid rising enrollment

A group of  students and faculty walk down a hallway with posters and decorations on the walls.
A Newark charter school will move out of a public school building by July 2024 as part of a legal settlement with the school district, which aims to expand. (Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat)

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This summer a Newark charter school will vacate the space it has rented from the city’s public schools for more than a decade, the latest move in the district’s push to reclaim school properties as enrollment rebounds.

People’s Preparatory Charter School will leave its location inside the Bard Early College High School building following a nearly four-year legal battle with Newark Public Schools over whether the school breached its contract by using more space than permitted under the lease, failing to pay past rent for the extra space, and, ultimately, interfering with the expansion of Bard.

The departure, set to happen by July 15, will allow the public school district to increase enrollment at Bard this fall, the district has said. It also reflects a step forward in Superintendent Roger León’s strategy to reclaim public school buildings and expand the district as student enrollment has increased over recent years.

When the district was under state control, from 1995 until 2020, state-appointed superintendents closed many public schools while the charter sector rapidly expanded. León, a Newark Public Schools graduate who moved up the district ladder and was appointed to his role in May 2018, has been clear about his attempt to stop the expansion of charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded schools.

Last year, the district appealed the state’s decision to expand North Star Academy Charter School by arguing that the school did not meet enrollment demands that warranted an expansion, placed a financial burden on the public schools, and created “a segregative effect” on the school system.

León also called for the closure of People’s Prep in a 2020 letter he sent to state education leaders considering a renewal for the charter to operate in Newark. He argued that the charter school’s presence in the shared building had prevented Bard from expanding.

People’s Prep’s expected move comes a year after the state’s department of education approved a merger between the school and Achieve Community Charter School to create a new K-12 Newark school renamed Gateway Academy, a partner of the BRICK Education Network with schools in Newark and Buffalo, New York.

Bard is a selective magnet high school in Newark where students can earn associate degrees from New York’s Bard College. The expansion of the school will allow the district to enroll “as many students who wish to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree,” said Newark Public Schools spokesperson Nancy Deering.

Former People’s Prep executive director Keith Robinson is now the Newark Regional Superintendent at BRICK Education network serving the new Gateway Academy school. In an email to Chalkbeat Newark last week, he wrote that the merger between the schools “ensures 8th graders have a guaranteed seat at a high-quality high school with more than a decade of college access and persistence experience.”

Tensions between NPS and People’s Prep grew over the years

People’s Prep is a small charter high school that has rented space in the Bard building since 2011. It welcomed 95 ninth graders that year, growing to a total enrollment of 340 for the 2022-23 school year, according to state fall enrollment data. The school’s lease for the space at Bard was created under former state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson and amended five times with rent increasing with each amendment.

The district’s August 2020 lawsuit against People’s Prep claimed the school breached its contract by “exceeding the square footage area permitted under the lease.” The lawsuit also claimed People’s Prep interfered with the district’s ability to provide the “highest quality of educational services to its students.” The lawsuit does not specify how much money People’s Prep owed.

The charter school alleged in a counterclaim that a year before the lawsuit, the district was trying to suppress charter enrollment by instituting “arbitrary caps” as part of its universal enrollment system, Newark Enrolls. The tensions between the district and charter schools grew after the enrollment system was revamped in 2019. In 2022, People’s Prep and six other charter networks broke away from their longstanding agreement with the district to participate in Newark Enrolls and instead signed on to a new enrollment platform.

The case between People’s Prep and the district was dismissed in 2023, but the settlement details are not available due to amendments to a state law barring the release of records about tenants who faced eviction over unpaid rent during the pandemic but were not ultimately evicted.

In an email to Chalkbeat Newark last week, Thomas Johnston of the Johnston Law Firm, who represented People’s Prep, wrote “Gateway Academy Charter School is pleased to have settled those differences with Newark District.”

In November 2022, People’s Prep purchased the historic Temple B’nai Abraham building at 621 Clinton Avenue in the South Ward for $2.5 million, according to property records.

Robinson said parents have been informed about People’s Prep’s move and school officials have a plan for where the school will be next year. School officials expected to share the news about the move with families at last week’s parent-teacher conferences, but have not confirmed if they disclosed where People’s Prep would move to.

León aims to acquire properties and expand district

Newark Public Schools said it is reviewing leases with other charter schools it houses for the “possible return of those school properties to the Board of Education,” according to a January district committee report. It is also looking to reclaim 12 district buildings previously transferred to the city under Anderson.

In 2020, the district sued the Newark Housing Authority, claiming it violated the agreement that the city would sell the buildings and return most of the profits to the school system. Among those properties is the Maple Avenue School, a former district school shuttered in 2015, and State Street School, Newark’s oldest school building.

In 2017, the city sold the Maple Avenue property for $1.2 million to Newark-based developer Hanini Group. In 2020, the property was sold for $10 million to a nonprofit connected to KIPP New Jersey, another charter school operator in Newark, and now houses KIPP Seek Academy.

Last year, the district also repurchased State Street school from the Hanini Group but details about the agreement between the public schools and the developer have not been disclosed, according to documents in a 2023 lawsuit filed by Skyway Publishing LLC, a New Jersey-based company that publishes TAPInto Newark, against the district over the agreement. The district plans to renovate the school as a district museum, León has previously said. The district remains in court to acquire the rest of the properties previously held by Newark Public Schools.

Last March, the district obtained the former four-story University Heights Charter School building. The charter school struggled to improve student test scores, increase enrollment, and retain its leadership team before the state shut it down. The building was then purchased by the state’s School Development Authority in 2022, which pays for school construction projects in 31 high-poverty districts, including Newark.

The school building was transferred to the district as part of the state’s promise to provide it with a new prekindergarten through eighth grade school. The building reopened this school year as the new Mandela Elementary School and is part of the district’s five-year capital plan. Property records show the building and land are valued at roughly $6.6 million but list the sale price as $1.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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