Request to Education Commissioner to Reject Renaissance School Applications in Camden

Save Our Schools NJ requests that Commissioner Hespe reject the Mastery and Uncommon Schools applications for renaissance school projects in Camden because they violate the Urban Hope legislation and regulations.

On May 19th, Save Our Schools NJ, a non-partisan, grassroots organization with more than 18,000 members across New Jersey, sent a letter to the state’s Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe alerting him to multiple violations of the Urban Hope Act and regulations by Mastery Charter and Uncommon Schools Charter in their applications for renaissance school status in Camden, and asking the Commissioner to reject both applications.

Save Our Schools NJ identified three types of violations of the Urban Hope Act in the Mastery and Uncommon Schools applications:

1) The applications fail to propose new renaissance school facilities or to provide the required information about those facilities.

The Urban Hope Act requires the construction of a new school facility or facilities and documentation and assurances related to the location, construction plans, safety and financing of those facilities.  The Mastery and Uncommon applications to the DOE contain none of the required information, documentation and affirmations.

In fact, the applications make clear that they do not include specific school facility projects for approval at all. Mastery, in its application, baldly states that it “is not including a facilities address in this application” and that they “are open to facilities options provided by the District.”  In its application, Uncommon states that “[w]e do not yet have a proposed address for the initial school facility in which Uncommon Camden plans to locate, but can affirm that all Uncommon Camden campus facilities will be located in the required urban campus area.”

2)   The applications fail to provide the required opportunity for public input

The Urban Hope Act mandates that applications for renaissance school projects in State-operated school district such as Camden contain “evidence” that the State District Superintendent convened at least three public meetings to discuss the merits of the renaissance school project.  The application also must contain written public comments received during those meetings. This mandate is essential to ensure that residents, parents and students in those neighborhoods understand the details of the project the district proposes to construct in partnership with the non-profit entity, and how the new school will serve their children, once the project is completed and operational.

The State Superintendent of Camden failed to include any “evidence” of the required public meetings where “the merits” of the projects were presented and properly considered or to submit any written comments on the projects.  This is not surprising as the applications do not contain any of the required information and documentation of the location, description, funding and other elements of the “newly constructed” actual projects as there is no intention by Mastery and Uncommon Schools to build new schools within the time frame required by the Urban Hope Act.

3)  Mastery and Uncommon Schools proposed to house their renaissance schools in temporary facilities, which is not permitted under the urban hope act

In their applications, both Mastery and Uncommon Schools indicated that they intend to partner with Camden in operating schools in temporary facilities, including, in the case of Mastery, an existing and operating Camden public school.  The Urban Hope Act does not allow schools to be operated on a temporary basis in temporary facilities, whether those facilities are in existing Camden public schools or in some other building.

“In light of these multiple violations of the Urban Hope Act and its regulations, we feel the Commissioner must deny the applications by the Camden School District, Mastery, and Uncommon Schools,” said Susan Cauldwell, the Executive Director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing.


Addition Information:

The letter that Camden mailed to parents

The Mastery Charter recruitment flyer that Camden mailed to parents

The letter we sent to the Commissioner on Monday, April 21, 2014

Philadelphia Inquirer coverage of the April 14, 2014 letter

Courier Post coverage of the April 14, 2014 letter

Is Camden in Compliance with the Urban Hope Act?

The Christie Administration appointed Camden Superintendent has been taking legally-questionable actions to expedite the privatization of that school district.

With the help of Camden parents and other residents, we have been documenting those actions and asking NJ’s Acting Commissioner of Education, David Hespe to investigate them.

Here is the second letter we mailed to Commissioner Hespe yesterday. The first can be found here.


April 21, 2014

Commissioner David C. Hespe
New Jersey Department of Education
100 River View Plaza
P.O. Box 500
Trenton, NJ 08625

Dear Commissioner Hespe,

As a follow-up to our April 14, 2014 letter, we wish to bring to your attention additional actions by the State Operated Camden School District (Camden) that raise serious concerns about Camden’s compliance with the Urban Hope Act and regulations, and with other laws.

1) Temporary facilities are not allowed under the Urban Hope Act

We remain very concerned that, although their application to build such schools has yet to be approved by your office, Camden is moving forward to facilitate the enrollment of Camden public school students in September, 2014 in “temporary” schools, to be operated by the Mastery and Uncommon organizations and located in existing Camden public schools, ostensibly as Renaissance Schools under the Urban Hope Act.

In passing the Urban Hope Act, the legislature was very clear that Renaissance Schools cannot operate as temporary schools in temporary facilities, but rather must be in a “newly-constructed” school. The legislative statement to the Urban Hope bill, issued by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on January 5, 2012, states on page 3 that “[t]he committee amended the bill to: … clarify that renaissance school projects are newly-constructed schools.”

Yet, Camden is planning to locate both Mastery and Uncommon Schools Renaissance schools in existing public school buildings, for the 2014-15 academic year.

The attached letter, which was mailed by Camden to public school parents, states:

“Mastery School of Camden will open this fall in two temporary locations for approximately 600 kindergarten through 5th grade students:

-At PynePoynt Family School, Mastery Academy will serve up to 380 new K-5 Students.

-At the old Washington School, Mastery Academy will serve approximately 220 K-2 students.”

These types of schools — to be operated by a charter management organization and located temporarily in existing public school facilities — are clearly not authorized under the Urban Hope Act. Accordingly, we request that you immediately investigate whether Camden has authorized Mastery and Uncommon to operate schools under the Urban Hope Act in 2014-15 on a temporary basis in existing Camden school facilities and, if so, take prompt action to direct Camden to terminate this arrangement.

2) Public school districts should not advocate for specific private entities

The letter quoted above, which Camden sent to public school parents, included the attached solicitation flyers for the Mastery charter school chain.

The use of Camden personnel and resources to encourage public school students to attend the privately managed Mastery school would constitute inappropriate use of school funds to promote — and give preferential treatment to — a specific private organization.

We request that you investigate the extent to which Camden’s public school resources were used in mailing Mastery recruitment flyers to parents.

The investigation also should ascertain why it appears that Mastery was the only charter organization in Camden to be given direct assistance by the Camden School District for 2014-15 enrollment recruitment activities.

3) Camden cannot share confidential student data with individual private entities

Camden parents who live in the area from which Mastery plans to draw for its unapproved Renaissance school also indicated that Mastery representatives came to their homes to encourage them to enroll their children in the Renaissance school.

This raises serious concerns about whether Camden disclosed individual student records and information to a third party entity without the consent of the students and their parents and guardians.

We request that your Office launch an immediate investigation into how Mastery, a private entity, obtained the addresses of Camden students for purposes of conducting unannounced visits to students’ homes. This investigation should examine whether Camden provided Mastery with students’ home addresses — or any other individual student information — without the consent of parents and guardians.

We would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this further.


The letter that Camden mailed to parents

The Mastery Charter recruitment flyer that Camden mailed to parents

The letter we sent to the Commissioner on Monday, April 14, 2014

Philadelphia Inquirer coverage of the April 14, 2014 letter

Courier Post coverage of the April 14, 2014 letter

New Jersey Does Not Need More Unequal, Unfair and Undemocratic Charter School Regulations

Should charter schools be able to expand in some communities through a different process than in others?

In January 2013, NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf pushed through new regulations that create a separate and unequal charter school approval process for Newark, Camden, Paterson, Jersey City, Trenton, and many other communities.

The Education Law Center filed a lawsuit to stop these new regulations as a violation of NJ charter law.

Save Our Schools NJ supported that lawsuit with an Amicus Brief written by a Pro Bono attorney, which questioned the fairness of treating communities of color differently than the rest of the state.

While this lawsuit is being decided, two charter schools have applied to expand using these illegal and very discriminatory regulations.

The schools are Merit Prep Charter School of Newark

and

Democracy Prep Charter School of Camden.

Save Our Schools NJ demands that Commissioner Cerf not approve any charter school expansions until the legality of this separate and unequal process is decided by the courts.

The Commissioner also should not approve any expansions without sharing the charter school expansion applications with the people of Camden and Newark and allowing them and their elected representatives to respond.

New Jersey does not need more backroom deliberations and top-down decision making.

We also do not need a dual system of local democratic control for some districts and not others.

Parents to Secretary Duncan: Stop Disempowering and Hurting Communities with NCLB Waivers and School Closings

On February 7th, the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions heard testimony on early lessons of No Child Left Behind state flexibility waivers, from US Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In October, a coalition of fifty leaders of New Jersey parent, civil rights, and social justice organizations sent a letter to Secretary Duncan, alerting him to two very troubling lessons they saw playing out as a result of the waiver: 1) The absolute lack of community involvement in the programs the State created to replace No Child Left Behind; and 2) The disproportionate, negative impact of these programs on low-income communities of color. Secretary Duncan promised to respond to that letter, but has so far failed to do so.

This message of disempowerment and harm to low-income communities of color as a result of Administration policies was echoed by another coalition of 500 parents and students from 18 cities, which Journey(ed) for Justice to Washington DC on January 29th. They highlighted the disparate negative impact of school closings on communities of color and asked Secretary Duncan to impose a nationwide moratorium on school closings until a more democratic process could be developed. They also asked him to implement a sustainable, community-driven school improvement process rather than the hierarchical programs and policies currently promoted by the US Department of Education.

Unfortunately, no community representatives testified at the February 7th Senate hearing on NCLB waivers. Instead, the Senators heard from current and former state-level officials representing some of the most regressive state waiver proposals. They included Andrew Smarick, a former NJ deputy commissioner of education and vocal proponent of school closings, privatization, and community disempowerment, who helped write New Jersey’s very troubled waiver plan.

Since the historic Brown v. Board ruling of 1954, communities have looked to the federal government to champion a level playing field for all of our children. This objective cannot be accomplished if community voices are shut out of the decision-making process and harmful policies are forced upon communities.

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Save Our Schools NJ is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of parents and other concerned residents whose more than 10,000 members believe that all NJ children should have access to a high quality public education.