by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor
Everything changed when Enzo Simonelli began attending fifth grade at Hudson Arts and Sciences Charter School in Kearny.
Enzo went from a quiet student with low grades being bullied by other kids to joining the robotics club and loving school.
But in 2021, the charter school was denied permission to expand to the ninth grade, leaving Enzo’s mother, Ana, with no choice but to enroll him in a different school. After months of stress and dire phone calls, he was accepted to the Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack, while his younger brother, Mateo, remained at the Kearny school.
Simonelli said she’s happy with the new school, “but at the same time, it’s tough financially, and emotionally for the kids. It’s a huge, huge change.”
Parents like Simonelli are blindsided when state officials deny charter school expansion — most recently, nine of the 17 schools that sought to add additional seats or grades were denied. The moves have left parents scrambling to locate another charter school with no waitlist, find the money for private tuition, or send their children to traditional public schools.
Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, claims the state Department of Education has denied 70% of expansion requests from the highest performing charter schools in the state since 2018, when Gov. Phil Murphy took office.
“This past round was really devastating,” Lee said. “It does not make sense. These are the types of decisions that have had devastating impacts on students and upended the lives of many families.”
Murphy, a two-term Democrat, has said he is generally supportive of charter schools. But charter school supporters note he has strong support from the statewide teachers union, which says charter schools drain funding from traditional public schools.
A Department of Education spokesman did not return a request for comment for this article.
New Jersey is home to 87 public charter schools, serving 60,000 students with another 20,000 students on waitlists.
Public charter schools are tuition-free public schools authorized by the state Department of Education, and their approval must be renewed every five years. Expansions must also be approved by the state.
The state says it uses metrics based on finances and academic standings to decide whether a school should be renewed. Similar metrics, including some test scores, are used for expansion. Charter schools apply for expansion in the fall, and are informed of the decision by February.
Denial letters lay out some reasons, but charter school officials say responses don’t include detailed information about their shortcomings or explain what changes could be made to get approval for expansion. They say they want a more transparent process, and are urging state officials not to look at one data point when issuing a denial.
“A lot of decisions were made with no rhyme or reason. The Department of Education should be calling balls and strikes based on clear, objective criteria, but unfortunately, that did not happen this past round,” said Lee.
He pointed to a denial letter for Trenton Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, which opened in 2018 and serves students in grades six through nine. The state denied its requested expansion to 10th grade, citing test scores from the 2018-2019 academic year, when school officials say 75% of current students didn’t attend. The letter also states the school lacks organizational structure and is currently eight students below the state’s enrollment bar.
Efe Odeleye, the school’s co-founder, said she has seen students close learning gaps and make remarkable growth in reading and math. She pointed to students who tested at 28% proficient in sixth grade and tested at nearly 50% three years later.
Odeleye called state officials’ decision to deny expansion premature, considering it didn’t take into account prior testing, students’ overall performance, parent experience, or that tests couldn’t be administered due to COVID-19 school closures.
“It ended up cutting off the most successful students — the reward for doubling their growth in three years was that they got cut off and got sent in a dozen different directions to go seek other high schools to attend,” she added. “Everyone’s afraid of what happens next because the data doesn’t substantiate that decision.”
Lee, who used to work in the Department of Education’s charter schools office, attributes some of the confusion to the lack of staff in the department. No one has permanently held the role of charter schools director since 2020.
Schools that are denied expansion can fight the decision in court — which Trenton Achievers decided to do. But the long battle was taking up time and energy the staff needed to divert to families in search of new schools for their children, Odeleye said.
The upcoming year
Odeleye said she was filled with shock and horror when she read the denial letter from the Department of Education last fall, and had to break the bad news to parents.
State officials offered no help to families who had nowhere to turn except public schools parents had already dismissed, she said.
“I almost feel like it should be incumbent on them to come to the schools to deliver this decision themselves or interview families in the aftermath if you genuinely believe the decision you made is better,” she said.
Most families value the education Trenton Achievers provides as a school aimed at preparing kids for higher education, Odeleye said. Many students who were cut off opted to attend Trenton public schools, which don’t offer the same level of STEM classes as the charter school, she said.
Lee said he’s excited to get the new year started — the closest to normal since March 2020. But there are still some fears among parents who fear that more disrupted education is on the horizon.
“The biggest question is around what’s going to be happening this fall as they begin making these decisions,” he said. “Many of our schools are coming back, and we need to make sure the department makes the right decision on moving forward.”
Schools that were denied expansion will be reapplying with “promising results” now that all testing assessments were given last year, he added.
Asked about charter school expansion denials in February, an irked Murphy said he supports high-performing schools no matter what kind of school they are.
“We’ve never, ever been hell no, charters. We just don’t get it. We’re not in the middle of that. We call these things as we see them,” he said. “We want to educate kids the very best way possible in America, and that’s what we’re committed to.
Meanwhile, Ana Simonelli said she’s already stressing about the 45-minute commute between her sons’ schools — a single mother, she bought her mom a car to help drive the kids and spends $1,000 monthly on car payments — but she knows Enzo is looking forward to another year at Bergen Arts and Sciences.
She hopes the Department of Education will reconsider denials after seeing the impact it has on families, she said.
“It’s our option to choose where to send them. Nobody can tell us to send our kids to a big high school. If we don’t feel that protection or the support from traditional schools,” she said. “It’s not about talking bad about public or private schools, it’s about where we feel safe.”