Thursday, April 20, 2017

It's Time For a State Takeover in Lakewood and Here's Why

Anyone who has been following the Lakewood School Board’s antics over the last decade can only sigh at the most recent news: the founder of  a Jewish special education yeshiva  that masquerades as a nonsectarian special education school was recently indicted for stealing public funds and laundering them in a scheme to enrich himself and a fundraising arm of the school.

The school is called SCHI, or School for Children with HIdden Intelligence. (Ignore the faces of color you see on the site; that's part of the charade.) The founder and current director is Rabbi Osher Eisemann. According to the Asbury Park Press, he has been charged with:
Theft by unlawful taking; misapplication of government property; misconduct by a corporate official; and money laundering — all second-degree offenses that carry up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino said in a statement.
Eisemann’s method was simple: he overcharged Lakewood Public Schools by about a million dollars by paying for uncertified teachers, overpaying administrators, and proffering receipts for items that don’t seem to exist (ex: an expensive generator for SCHI’s summer camp that no one could find). Then he gave the money to the school’ s fundraising foundation, the non-profit Services for Hidden Intelligence, LLC, and used the money for purchases unrelated to SCHI.

This shande far di kinde (Yiddish for “scandal for the children”) barely  qualifies as the tip of the um, iceberg regarding the school’s illicit behavior.

Lakewood is complicated: the public district’s 5,000 students are Latino, Black, and largely poor.  Student outcomes are grim. This is largely due to the lack of funds available to public school students because the district spends over $18 million of its $128 million operating budget to bus 25,000  kids to over 100 Jewish day schools (the transportation is managed by an unaccountable consortium) and another $22 million to SCHI for providing what is supposed to be a secular education to 200 Jewish special needs children. (Contrary to statements by the omnipresent legal eagle Michael Inzelbuch, “most if not all of [SCHI’s students] are Orthodox.”) That leaves only $13,236 per pupil for public school non-Jewish students, well below what N.J. considers “adequacy.”

In a letter last month to the community, Lakewood Superintendent Laura Winters wrote,
It is with great sadness that I must inform you that the Lakewood School District is unable to provide its students with a “thorough and efficient” education required by the New Jersey State Constitution. The level of education that will be offered to the students of the Lakewood School District in the 2017-2018 school year, is in my professional opinion, tragically inadequate and inferior compared to the education offered to those students in wealthier towns in Ocean County and across the state.
SCHI's “palatial” grounds were raided by the FBI last June for exploiting the federal E-rate program. Last April Lakewood U.N.I.T.E., which represents Black students, filed a civil rights complaint against the school district for "disparate treatment of minority students" in special-education placements.

Annual tuition at SCHI is listed as $97,000 per student, but usually approaches about $125,000 to cover extra services.

But the school board is controlled by Orthodox Jews and so is the town. The State DOE sent in a fiscal monitor, MIchael Azzara, several years ago and he regularly overrules the Board. But there are limits on what he can do.

This disparate treatment is old news. SCHI’s duplicity is old news. Lakewood School Board’s disregard for Black and Latino students is old news. It’s time for something new. How about a state takeover?

Friday, April 14, 2017

All Signs Point To The Waning of the Opt-Out Movement: Just Look at Princeton

Princeton Regional Public Schools is the bellwether of the opt-out movement in New Jersey. The wealthy and mostly White district is the birthplace of Save Our Schools-NJ which, with assistance from NJEA, is a primary lobbyist against accountability. (SOS-NJ's other bailiwick is opposing school choice -- easy to doif you have access to districts like Princeton, which spends $24,634 per student per year.)

Two years ago 340 Princeton High School juniors opted out of the language arts PARCC test, Fewer than 10 percent participated.

This year, however, 66 percent of juniors, 36.8 percent of sophomores and 96.4 percent of freshmen took PARCC.

From Central Jersey:
Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane said Monday that participation rates last week were up "considerably over our first couple of years of PARCC testing, particularly at the ninth-grade level, where now it becomes a graduation requirement."
No doubt SOS-NJ, NJEA, and Education Law Center -- the anti-accountability troika of N.J. -- will continue to argue that PARCC should not be a graduation requirement because, unlike our old ASK and HSPA tests, these new tests are aligned with N.J.’s school content standards and too many students fail to meet proficiency benchmarks in language arts and math. Even in lofty Princeton, last year 20 percent of eighth-graders didn’t meet the cut in language arts and 28 percent didn’t make the cut in math.

There are good arguments for multiple pathways to graduation. (N.J. will maintain portfolio options as well as alternative testing for kids with disabilities). Only one other state, New Mexico, includes a test as a graduation requirement.  However, undermining the ability of the State to measure proficiency rates and unveil weaknesses of public schools just hurts kids and families who seek clear-eyed data on school quality.

Opt-out fever has subsided. Put away the Tylenol. Instead, let's agree that all of us -- especially those of us who can't buy their way into districts like Princeton -- need clear information about student outcomes. Regardless of whether proficiency in math and language arts should be a requirement for a high school diploma, we're all better served by shedding pretense, confronting real-life student readiness for life after high school, and collaborating on ways to truly save our schools.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Disunity in Newark As Voters Prepare to Select School Board Members

In less than two weeks Newark voters will elect three new members of their Board of Education and the stakes have never been higher. After twenty-two years of state control, city representatives will once again oversee every aspect of New Jersey’s largest and most politically-convoluted school district. As if this set of circumstances weren’t challenging enough, the education community’s spanking-new solidarity is in danger of fracture.

For many decades Newark board members have been beholden to powerful politicos --  the Mayor and Ward leaders --- who typically endorse slates of three candidates. For example, in both 2014 and 2015 Mayor Ras Baraka, who won his own election by warping his campaign into a referendum on then-Superintendent Cami Anderson, ran a slate called “Children First.” But last year a new powerhouse rode into town, a pro-charter organization called PC2E, which magically finagled a “Unity Slate” -- one candidate chosen by Mayor Ras Baraka, one chosen by charter advocates, and one chosen by Councilman Anibal Ramos of the North Ward.

PC2E’s 2016 strategy was to buy time in order to avoid a political war with Mayor Baraka, who favors a charter school moratorium and called the parent-hailed expansion of KIPP and Uncommon “highly irresponsible.”  The slate was comprised of Kim Gaddy, (PC2E’s choice),  Tave Padilla (Councilman Ramos’ choice), and Leah Owens, a decidedly anti-choice candidate chosen by Baraka who is one of the founders of  the Newark Education Workers Caucus, the militant arm of the Newark Teachers Union, and works for New Jersey Communities United, which opposes school choice.

The Unity Slate swept the election.

In fact, this strategy did seem to produce unity, a sharp contrast with the  typical divisiveness of Newark elections. PC2E’s success last year also seemed to signify a new acceptance by Mayor Baraka and the Newark Teachers Union that public charter schools, which currently educate thirty-one percent of Newark schoolchildren, are permanent fixtures in the city’s educational landscape.

But this year was supposed to be different. PC2E (as it told its funders) planned to run a slate of three pro-choice candidates in order to secure a majority on the nine-member Board which will need to find consensus on the mighty challenges confronting the district. These include choosing a new superintendent to replace state-appointed Chris Cerf, managing the district’s fiscal distress (last year’s budget included a $72 million deficit), dealing with unpopular albeit necessary school closures as student enrollment continues to drop due to parental preference for independently-operated public charter schools, and addressing unacceptably low student achievement in parts of the traditional sector. (Example: at Weequahic High School two percent of students achieved college readiness scores in math on last year’s ACT test.)

However, while there is, once again, a (very) well-funded  2017 Unity Slate, the acceptance by political leaders of Newark’s changing educational landscape appears to have been ephemeral. According to inside sources who wish to remain anonymous, PC2E produced a menu of four prospective pro-reform candidates to Baraka: Oscar James, Charles Love, Rashon Hasan, and Randolph Higgins. All are eminently qualified. Oscar James is Director of Operations for PC2E with a political science degree from Villanova and a former South Ward Councilman. Charles Love works with a nonprofit organization that serves at-risk teens in Essex, Passaic and Hudson counties and is studying for his doctorate in Organizational Behavior. Rashon Hasan is the first college graduate in his family  (he also has an MBA) and formerly served on the Newark Board of Education.

But Baraka vetoed all four because they were not adequately deferential  So much for unity. So much for PC2E running an all-pro-reform slate. So much for PC2E’s raison d’etre.

And then Charles Love, a fourth-generation Newarker who used to be the Family Engagement Coordinator for PC2E, decided to run as an independent. His motto is,  appropriately,  “it’s time to take back power from politicians and give it back to the people.”

Last week Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins announced she wasn’t backing the Unity Slate as she did last year but instead was endorsing Charles Love. (She also endorsed another candidate, former Newark Public Schools Acting Superintendent Deborah Terrell.) Love has also received official endorsements from former Newark board president Leonard Anton Wheeler, New Jersey State Democratic Committee Chair Chris James, and South Ward Senior District Leader Hope Jackson. LaVar Young,  head of the New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options, endorsed last year’s Unity Slate but declined to do so this year because he doesn’t “think the candidates had enough experience to run a $1 billion school system.” (Two of the three members of the Unity Slate didn’t get past high school.)

Another force in Newark education politics is the grassroots parent group called Hands Off Our Future Collective. It has made no official endorsements. However, on its Facebook page there is this exchange:
“Voters should vote as the mayor has indicated they voted for the Mayor...#GoBaraka #MayorBaraka #RasBaraka
#FollowTheLeader "
“That's the damn problem, you guys wants puppets. Did you just say VOTERS should VOTE as the Mayor as indicated? I have a question: who the hell is the Mayor to tell VOTERS how to VOTE?”
That, indeed, is the question that will confront voters at the polls on April 25th as they select three new Board of Education members.  PC2E’s future may ride in the balance.

Friday, April 7, 2017

KIPP NJ Students Teach Us How To "Be The Change"

Last Wednesday KIPP New Jersey hosted the 10th annual “Be the Change” celebration, its primary fundraising initiative. By the end of the evening KIPP NJ, which manages the much sought-after public charter school group with facilities in Newark and Camden, had raised over $1.8 million, all of which will be directly funneled into classrooms. Luminaries included Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform;  Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation,; Ays Necioglu, Vice President of SEO Scholars; and Dr. Daniel Porterfield; President of Franklin & Marshall College,

In addition, “Be the Change” inaugurated its first panel discussion, which this year focused on the “degree gap” -- the disparity between the percentages of students of color and white students who earn college degrees. Panelists considered initiatives to improve college access and inculcate persistence and “grit" in order to allay impediments to degree completion.

Here’s Ryan Hill, KIPP New Jersey founder and CEO:
This event, and our overall mission here at KIPP New Jersey, is all about making a difference. Since day one when we opened the doors to our first school here in Newark’s South Ward, it’s been our kids who have been our source of inspiration. Once each year, we come together to celebrate their accomplishments as well as recognize the efforts of our schools’ amazing supporters. It’s incredible to see the diverse range of individuals, families and organizations that stand behind our kids, each of which play an important role in their future. We’re incredibly grateful for their support as each day, we get one step closer our nation knowing Newark and Camden, New Jersey, as cities of world-class public education.
KIPP currently serves 3,700 students in Newark and 850 in Camden. Last year the NJ DOE approved KIPP’s proposal to expand in Newark. Once all of the approved expansions in Newark are completed (Uncommon Schools is expanding as well) , an additional 8.500 seats will be available to families seeking alternative public schools -- not nearly enough to satisfy demand but a step forward.

Predictably, Education Law Center, which once represented poor urban children of color but now appears to serve as the legal arm of NJEA,  has filed a complaint with the DOE. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka called the expansion approvals a "huge step backwards." NJEA has demanded a moratorium on all charter approvals and expansions. These special interest groups don't want to be the change. They want to stop the change.

However, Haneef Auguste, a KIPP parent, spoke truth to power in NJ Spotlight last month:
I intentionally chose the KIPP New Jersey schools for my family (one boy and three girls), because we were desperate to find an alternative to Newark Public Schools that my family could afford. I’m not sure if these parents that oppose choice understand firsthand, as I do, what it feels like to know you would give your life to ensure your child has a bright future and a shot at the rapidly shrinking window into the American dream...
I, for one, will not flush my child’s future down the drain because of people philosophically opposed to my choice. What for them is philosophical, from their leafy perch in the ‘burbs, for me and my children is a decision of heart-wrenching consequence: to have a future or not.  
Mr. Auguste is a role model for progressive, child-centered choice. He is "the change." Now more of Newark's schoolchildren will be the beneficiaries of that bold vision.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Newark Mom on LIFO Lawsuit: "I'm Just a Parent Who Wants To Make A Change"

Earlier this month, a short animated video was released to the public explaining New Jersey’s quality-blind “last in, first out” (LIFO) teacher layoff statute.  As one of ten remaining states in the country that mandates LIFO, the law requires school districts to lay off teachers based only on the date when they started teaching in the district, with the newest teachers losing their jobs first.

By forbidding administrators from considering classroom effectiveness, this law runs counter to the overwhelming research consistently showing that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning.

In November, six Newark parents filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court called H.G. v. Harrington that asserts that New Jersey’s LIFO law violates students’ constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education. 

After viewing the video, I reached out to one of the parents, Wendy S., one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Here are my questions and her answers.

Why did you join this lawsuit? What motivated you to join this effort?

Having gone to school myself in the Newark Public Schools, I remember a lot of teachers who seemed like they were just waiting to retire. Throughout the years I would hear things about seniority, and I noticed myself that good, newer teachers wouldn’t always stick around. So when I found out about the LIFO law– that the last ones in are the first ones out – that never sat well with me. I saw firsthand that our schools employed teachers who had the potential to be great for our kids but would be laid off first..

What has your experience been like so far as a parent of kids in the Newark Public Schools?

I know that Newark has been working a lot on teacher assessments and grading the teachers – I think that’s great. I’m against teacher layoffs, but if they have to happen, I think these assessments should be the precursor. It shouldn’t be based on how many years – it’s the quality of your work, not the quantity of years that you’ve been here. And with the risk of budget woes, all these good effective teachers are at risk. I have two children currently in elementary school – I want the best teachers out there for them, not necessarily the ones who’ve been here the longest.

What has it been like to be part of the plaintiff group in this lawsuit? 

It’s good. It gives a voice to what’s been going on. There’s an urban myth out there that makes it seem like Newark parents aren’t involved or aren’t aware of what’s going on compared to other parents in the suburbs or other districts – and that’s just not true. Once you’re out there you see that parents do care and parents want what’s best for their kids. It’s amazing how many parents go through different things and are still willing to do what it takes to make a change.

Lawsuits like yours have been called “anti-teacher” or a “corporate conspiracy” by some critics. What are your thoughts when you hear that? 

I have had some people ask me why I’m doing this and I have to explain to them what it’s about. It’s mind-boggling – these conspiracies – I’m for the highest quality education. That’s my main concern. I just explain to people what it’s really about and then they see it differently. People will ask me what my motives are, who’s “behind the lawsuit,” who’s really influencing us. And I say no one, it’s just parents who want to make a change. I feel that this is something that is overall good for all of Newark and all kids in school.

When people automatically assume that I’m anti-teacher and that we’re attacking unions and what teachers have worked so hard for, I tell them that’s just not what we are about. I respond and say, “Listen, at the end of the day we need to have high-quality teachers teaching our kids.” It’s not about somebody’s pension or how long you’ve been teaching. If you’ve been teaching for 20 years and you’re good at what you’re doing, I don’t see a problem, we should keep that teacher too. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re effective and you’re good – you should be rewarded, not penalized.

One example I give them is that one bad apple makes it bad for everybody. In any profession if somebody’s not effective, they’re not doing their job, they’re not putting out results, it makes everybody look bad. And then everybody is put in the same boat when people say that Newark teachers are bad. And then good teachers who are newer are at risk of leaving. Then what?

This lawsuit is pretty historic – nothing like this has ever been done in New Jersey. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer? 

It’s just mind-boggling. I ponder why this hasn’t been done before. We know it’s a problem. So, I guess we are trailblazing. But it makes you wonder what politicians were really thinking about when they wrote this law  - do they care about the kids?

Do you have any words of encouragement for parents who are concerned about their kids’ education?

Be involved. Find out about policies and procedures. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to challenge people. In my case, since it was about my kids and the quality of the education they’re getting, I feel like I have a right to know about the policies that impact this. Every school has a parent engagement meeting and so I would encourage other parents to get involved in that. Don’t feel intimidated. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, or you’re doubtful, look into it. See how you can make a change.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

NJEA as a Fish?

This image above is from NJEA's facebook page. Predatory, anyone? Not sure what to make of it:  NJEA  eviscerating charter schools through a moratorium? NJEA swallowing Senate President Steve Sweeney whole? Pension costs devouring N.J.'s budget? A fantastical depiction of "fully funding" the school aid formula (farcically promised by NJEA's anointed next governor Phil Murphy) which would gobble up all other state allocations? A piscine display of general prowess?

Suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Paulo Freire Charter School Closed By State, Even Though "Our Students Are Outperforming Their Peers"

Earlier this month the New Jersey Department of Education announced the closing of three charter schools in Newark: Newark Prep, Merit Prep, and Paulo Freire Charter School. The reason given was "poor performance." The closings were announced a day after the deadline for for Newark's universal enrollment system.
In response, leaders of Paulo Freire sent a letter this week to parents. Below is the complete letter.

March 24, 2017

Dear Paulo Freire Parents and Guardians:

In the interest of transparency, and to uphold the core values that we share as a thriving educational community, we wanted to communicate to each of you directly as school leaders. The last few weeks have been tough on all of us, as we attempt to understand the state’s decision to close the Paulo Freire Charter School.

In all fairness to our students, families, and staff, it was important that we conduct a thorough investigation and fully reflect on this situation.  After careful review by the Board of Trustees, administration, and our outside counsel, we firmly believe that the decision by the state to close our school was based on an arbitrary and biased assessment done by the Office of Charter Schools.  To be clear, we have come to believe that the Commissioner's decision to close our school was based on misrepresented and inaccurate information.

Specifically, the report which served as a basis for the Commissioner decision, violated state probationary site visit protocols, and the report was substantially anecdotal with very little quantitative data supporting the claims that were made.  For example, we noticed that statements such as,  “Some interviewed students reported that academic expectations vary greatly across classrooms,” were made with no reference to percentages, number of persons/incidents, or documentation that supports such a claim.
In addition, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) stated that our school was being closed due to underperformance. However, this statement is false and serves no purpose other than to disrupt and publically hurt the hard work of our parents, students, and staff. For example, the State has claimed that our school had 18 students who did not graduate on time, but this statement is misleading and inaccurate. The state also used this data to adjust our graduation rate; however, the adjusted graduation rate for our school is still higher than that of Newark’s comprehensive high schools. Moreover, our PSAT and SAT data is also higher than Newark’s comprehensive high schools, and other independent charter schools in the city. This data actually supports that our students are outperforming their peers.
Adjusted Graduation Rate
*Newark’s remaining independent charter high schools
District Name
Newark Public Schools (excluding magnets high schools)
Paulo Freire Charter School
People’s Prep Charter School*
Marion P. Thomas Charter High School*

Composite SAT Score
*Newark’s remaining independent charter high schools
District Name
Newark Public Schools (excluding magnets high schools)
Paulo Freire Charter School
People’s Prep Charter School*
Marion P. Thomas Charter High School*

PSAT/SAT Participation Rates
*Newark’s remaining independent charter high schools
District Name
SAT (12th Grade)
Newark Public Schools
(excluding magnets high schools)
Paulo Freire Charter School
People’s Prep Charter School*
Marion P. Thomas Charter High School*

    Class of 2016 College Acceptance Rates
Competitive/Highly Competitive
College Acceptance Rate*
4-Year College
Acceptance Rate
4-Year College Matriculation Rate
*Selectivity is based upon Barron's Ranking of Colleges/ Universities
$3.9 million in scholarships and grants

As a community of educators, parents, and staff, we should be very proud of the strides that we have made since the Paulo Freire Charter School opened its doors. Through all of our work, we have targeted the most at-risk students of our City, and provided them a specially designed environment of support and learning.  The results have been seen in our homes, neighborhoods, and in our classrooms.  Just last month, students who would have never dreamed of attending college, were stopping us in the halls celebrating their college acceptances and scholarship awards. Together, we have made a difference, and have made a lasting impact on our city. Nothing that state chooses to do, will ever take that away from us!

As we look to the end of the school year, these are the memories we choose to focus on, and we choose not to be defensive about judgments or a system made by people who have never walked in our halls.

While we firmly believe that we have been treated unjustly, unfortunately, there is very little we can realistically do to address this situation. The appeal process has not garnered positive results in the past, and the cost would simply bankrupt our school and cause us to sacrifice our academic program. Even if we were to win, which is very unlikely based on historic outcomes of other schools, it would leave us financially weakened moving forward. For this reason, while it breaks our heart, we have decided that the best course of action will be to invest our time in ensuring the best and most seamless transition for your children and our staff.

As you know, our purpose for founding the Paulo Freire Charter School was to provide a secondary college preparatory option for all students, especially those who did not test into the magnet high schools and who did not attend a K-12 charter. Based on our college acceptance/matriculation rates and our scholarship award totals, we know that we have proven that Demography is Not Destiny within the City of Newark. We also know that we have indeed accomplished our goal of providing a secondary college preparatory option for students, who may have otherwise not been afforded the opportunity. As a result, we are quite saddened by the Commissioner’s decision to close our school because this decision will once again leave our demographic of Newark’s students underserved.

But as we look to the future, we are united as a school and as a community. Each of us – parent, teacher, or student – have been change agents to fight against systems of oppression, bias, and inequity. These are the tenants that unite us and will continue to unite us all in the years to come.

Our founders were born and raised in our great city, and during these last few days, I have often thought of them and the children we serve as inspiration.  We are thankful for their commitment, and for your passion for our school – and we promise as we look to these final months we will not let you down.

Civically Yours,
 Shavon Chambers,  M.S.W. Ed.D.
Paulo Freire Charter School

Tauheedah F. Baker, M.Ed. MPA,
Executive Director/Chief School Administrator
Paulo Freire Charter School