NJ denies Newark charter school from entering Jersey City, blocks expansion of another for third time

Roseville Community Charter School greets residents walking on the sidewalks of Orange Street and Gray Street in Newark. It was once called Saint Rose of Lima School. (José A. Alvarado Jr. for Chalkbeat)

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The state’s acting education commissioner denied the expansion of two Newark charter schools – marking another year of slowdown to charter growth – while approving a small-scale charter school for renewal due to above-average state test scores.

New Jersey blocked LEAD Charter School, an alternative public charter school, from expanding into Jersey City, and for the third time in a row, denied Roseville Community Charter School’s request to expand. The state also renewed The Gray Charter School’s agreement to operate until 2029.

Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan sent charter school decision letters on Jan. 31 to schools statewide that were seeking renewals or amendments to their charter agreements, including requests to renew charter applications, add a grade level, or increase seats. Allen-McMillan cited low enrollment and “stagnant levels” of achievement on state tests as reasons for denying the charter school expansion requests this year.

During this school year’s amendment and renewal process, the state made decisions on 15 charter school requests statewide.

“The New Jersey Department of Education has a rigorous framework for reviewing and approving all expansions and renewals of public charter schools throughout the state,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s spokesman in an email this month.

The decisions “ensure existing charter schools can continue collaborating with their communities and the State to best serve students and improve educational outcomes,” Yaple added.

In total, the state approved eight expansion requests for charter schools in Paterson, Hoboken, Jersey City, Lakewood, and Perth Amboy, as well as three in Plainfield, according to the state education department’s approval letters obtained by Chalkbeat. A school in Bridgeton was granted a decrease in enrollment and three charter schools in Plainfield, Egg Harbor Township, and Perth Amboy were approved for renewals but placed on probation.

During this year’s renewal and amendment process, the department received 2,181 requests for seat expansions but only recommended the expansion of 1,675. It also granted the reduction of 85 seats.

The state’s latest decisions come as Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has denied requests for charter school expansions over the last few years – a shift from his predecessor, Chris Christie, who oversaw the charter school boom in Newark and appointed state superintendents to oversee the public schools.

It also comes as Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León continues to acquire former school properties and expand district schools. León, a district graduate and the first superintendent appointed under local control, has been clear about his attempt to stop the expansion of charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded schools.

State cites low enrollment, test scores in denial letters

Among the three decisions in Newark, The Gray Charter School, located near the border of the Ironbound neighborhood in the city, was renewed for five years through June 30, 2029, with a maximum enrollment of 420 students. It will continue to serve kindergarten through ninth grade students.

In 2023, Gray School students surpassed statewide proficiency levels in English language arts and math, according to the state’s decision letter. Specifically, 75.2% of students reached proficiency levels in the subject compared to the state’s 51.3% proficiency rate. The city’s public school district achieved a 29% proficiency rate.

LEAD, which requested to add Jersey City to its charter agreement but was denied, is an alternative public charter high school designed to serve youth 16-21 years old who are not participating in school or the workforce, as well as undercredited students from the public school district.

Its request to expand to Jersey City was aimed at helping youth in that city, according to the organization. The state also denied LEAD’s request to expand its maximum enrollment from 480 seats to 780 for the next school year.

According to Allen-McMillian’s letter, the school has not met its maximum student enrollment since it started operating in 2017. If there is available space at a school, charter schools may enroll non-resident students, which removes the need to expand LEAD to Jersey City and increase its enrollment, according to the letter. The school has been under probation since 2021.

“We appreciate the Department of Education’s review of LEAD’s application to serve disconnected youth in Jersey City and respect the decision they have made. Our students in Newark will continue to excel at LEAD as they receive education and job training services that prepare them for postsecondary success,” said Robert Clark, founder and CEO of Newark Opportunity Youth Network, which operates the school.

Roseville, which saw a denial to its expansion request for a third year in a row, is a small school serving grades kindergarten through fourth. In February 2022 and 2023, the state rejected its request to add a fifth grade and to increase its enrollment cap by 66 students to 396.

This year, Roseville requested the same expansion but the commissioner’s decision letter in January said the percentage of students meeting or exceeding proficiency on statewide assessments “presents moderate concerns regarding RCCS’ ability to provide high-quality instruction across all content areas and does not support the requested expansion at this time.”

Specifically, the “continual decrease and relative stagnant levels” of achievement on state tests “do not demonstrate the organization systems in place” to support the school’s expansion request – reasons the state also cited in its 2022 and 2023 denial letters for not approving Roseville’s expansion. The school has also seen a shrinking waitlist and has not met its enrollment limit, according to the commissioner’s letter.

In 2019, 35.3% of Roseville students reached proficiency levels in English language arts, which is below the state’s 57.9% proficiency rate that year, the state’s letter cited. In Newark Public Schools, 36.3% reached proficiency that year.

In 2023, proficiency levels in English language arts dropped across the board and 33.3% of Roseville students reached proficiency levels. Students across the state achieved a 51.3% proficiency rate and 32.2% of Newark Public Schools students attained proficiency levels in the subject that year.

Last year, the state approved the expansion of two charter schools and approved the merger of two others to form one K-12 school. The state approved 11 out of 14 expansion requests for charter schools in 2023.

There are 85 charter schools across the state with more than 60,000 students enrolled, according to New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association’s 2023 data. In Newark, 20,450 students attend charter schools, with several large charter networks making up the bulk of them. KIPP alone has 12 schools in the city with over 6,000 students.

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

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