Charter network makes the grade in N.J. school

ByLeslie Brody

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Ask Caleb Brooks, a 9-year-old in Newark, about his old school, and he points to a scar under his left eyebrow. He says he had to get stitches after an eighth-grader shoved his head into a table.

Caleb went to Bragaw Avenue School, a traditional public school that was one of the worst-performing in a troubled city system. Enrollment was low and more than a quarter of its students were chronically absent.

The district asked KIPP, an established charter network, to take charge starting with last school year. Turning around a failing school in a poor, high-crime neighborhood is notoriously hard, but initial data provided by KIPP suggest that relaunching the site as Life Academy, for kindergarten through fourth grade, is paying off.

“Before there used to be chaos,” said Caleb, a fourth-grader. “Teachers didn’t push us to persevere. Now they do.”

Critics often say that charters skim the best students, leave the hardest-to-teach children in regular public schools and in doing so polish their records for achievement. Charter schools dispute that claim.

When a traditional school such as Bragaw converts to a charter, it is possible to track how the same students fared after a change in management, staff and philosophy.

Most children from Bragaw started Life Academy in the fall of 2014 nearly a full year behind in math and reading, judging by a widely used test called Measures of Academic Progress. The network said that by spring, students on average had roughly hit grade level in math or surpassed it, depending on the grade. In reading, on average they had almost caught up.

Parents said their children used to run loose in the hallways and fights among students were common. Now, they say, the school feels safe, disciplined and more rigorous.

Caleb’s mother, Tiara Kelley, said his new teachers were more adept at dealing with her son’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “I want him to be in an environment where they’re not there to get a paycheck only, but they really want to see the kids change and grow and learn,” she said.

To be sure, some well-regarded district schools are popular, and not all charters succeed. New Jersey officials have shut three Newark charters in recent years for poor performance and financial problems.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who was a high-school principal, and Newark Teachers Union officials say the rapid growth of charters drains resources from regular public schools. Last Monday, the union held a “vigil” on City Hall steps, asking protesters to light candles for laid-off employees, children in overcrowded district classrooms and arts programs that got cut.

Charters are taxpayer-funded and privately operated, and most, like KIPP, aren’t unionized. Last year, 12,900 children attended charters in Newark, and 36,100 were in district schools. The state-operated district expects to pass $226 million of its nearly $1 billion annual budget to charters this year.

The mayor called KIPP “highly irresponsible” last week after the network applied for state permission to open five more sites in Newark, adding 5,440 seats in coming years. “You cannot help some children at the expense of others,” Mr. Baraka said.

Now KIPP has eight schools in Newark and its leaders point to Life Academy as evidence their approach works. Former Bragaw students who started Life Academy in third grade, for example, entered a year ago with an average math score in the 28th percentile nationwide, according to the Measures of Academic Progress. The network said that by spring, their average math score beat 61% of test-takers from all backgrounds.

Skeptics question such data. But Mathematica Policy Research, an independent group, released a study in September finding that the KIPP schools brought positive and “educationally meaningful impacts” for students across its network around the country.

Ryan Hill, the executive director of KIPP New Jersey, says factors behind the children’s progress at Life Academy include a strong principal, effective teachers, real-time coaching and efficient classroom routines that maximize instruction time. He says the best teachers know which students are tuning out and how to bring back their focus. They strive for a climate that is “warm and demanding.”

“You don’t have to be tough as long as you’re consistent,” Mr. Hill said.

The school has about 320 students. About 92% get free or reduced-price lunch, 85% are black, 6% Hispanic and 11% special needs.

Rules abound. “Scholars” walk between classes with their arms stuck to their sides, following lines of colored tape marking the hallway floors. To maintain quiet, teachers tell children to tighten their lips and puff out their cheeks with “bubble mouths.” Some critics have called such techniques too regimented.

Another high-performing charter network that took over a failing traditional school in Newark reported strong gains as well. Uncommon Schools launched North Star Alexander in the fall of 2014. At the end of the school year, all but one of its 30 fourth-graders passed the state science test, with many deemed advanced, state data show. The previous year, only 46% of the fourth-graders in that building passed.

Using another measure, Uncommon Schools says the site’s fourth-graders entered at mid-first-grade level in literacy, on average. By the end of the school year, the group had on average moved up to third-grade level.