Hoboken Superintendent Response to DaVinci Charter School

Below is the text of a letter from Superintendent Mark Toback to NJ Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf regarding the impact of the proposed DaVinci Charter School on the Hoboken public schools, dated April 25, 2012. Click here to see a scan of the original public document including all attachments.

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Hoboken Public Schools
OFFICE OF THE SUPERINTENDENT
1115 Clinton Street – Hoboken, NJ 07030

Dr. Mark Toback
Superintendent of Schools
mtoback@hoboken.k12.nj.us

April 25, 2012

Mr. Christopher Cerf
Commissioner of Education
New Jersey Department of Education
100 River View Plaza
PO Box 500
Trenton, NJ 08625

Dear Commissioner Cerf:

I appreciate the fact that you made a great effort to reach out to school superintendents during your convocation at Jackson High School in late February. You communicated your concerns about a number of important issues and demonstrated a great awareness of matters important to school leaders. I enjoyed hearing about the ongoing efforts of your new leadership team to complete the task of developing a comprehensive database that will create many new opportunities to analyze student performance information. I have already had a chance to use the software to assess the performance of our elementary schools. I also appreciate your efforts to immediately establish standardized systems for all school districts in calculating high school graduation rates and the academia growth of students.

As a result of your outreach efforts, I feel comfort in communicating serious and legitimate concerns I have regarding the potential formation of a new charter school in Hoboken. I have included compelling information supporting those concerns and I am hopeful you will consider my letter when making a determination about this proposed charter school. As you will see, I am outnumbered in many ways. There are many letters of support included in the application packet for the proposed DaVinci Charter School. Another challenge is the fact that charter applications are being reviewed by a committee of volunteers and many committee members are charter school advocates.

The charter school applicants did a very good job in developing many parts of their school concept. There is no doubt that STEM programs are very appealing for a variety of reasons. While you have been presented with certain information from the would be founders and supporters of the DaVinci Charter School, I feel an obligation to present my analysis regarding the impact of this potential new charter school on the students in our regular (non-charter) public schools as well as the impact that three other charter schools have already had on the regular public schools.

Based on my review of NJAC 6A:11-2.2, I understand that you and the members of the State Board of Education have a significant amount of work to do in analyzing the impact of granting a new charter. On the following pages, you will find that I have included administrative code, statutes regarding charter schools, and passages drawn from the DaVinci application. I have provided my feedback and/or analysis for your consideration. My goal was to focus on factual information as much as possible.

6A11-2.2 Prior to the granting of the charter, the Commissioner shall assess the student composition of a charter school and the segregative effect that the loss of students may have on its district of residence. The assessment shall be based on the enrollment from the initial recruitment period pursuant to NJAC 6A11-4.4 (a) and (b).

I have included my analysis of the student composition for each of the schools for your review (Attachment A). The analysis, taken directly from enrollment statistics posted on the NJDOE website for the 2010-2011 school year, vividly reveals that the existing charter schools in Hoboken have had a segregative effect on the children of Hoboken. The segregative effect exists in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. You can see that in almost every category, there is a large divide between the enrollment in the regular public (non-charter) schools and the charter schools.

As supplemental enrollment/demographic information, I have enclosed enrollment numbers for Hoboken Charter School (Attachment B). While the school appears to be the most diverse of the charter schools when enrollment is summarized, there are some important facts missed with the summary enrollment figures. Enrollment at the early grade levels is actually much less diverse. After completing a tour of the Hoboken Charter School high school classrooms, I am concerned about the level of funding this charter district is using to support the education of the high school students, especially when compared to the funding the state provides to support the education of these children.

The composition of students at the existing charter schools in Hoboken is relevant because the applicants for DaVinci expressed their interest in replicating the student enrollment at the Hola Charter School and due to the fact that there already is a segregative effect. You will note the following on page 2-12 of the application for the DaVinci Charter School:

Lunch Rates: We based these figures on the experience of the Hola Charter School which has a similar population to what we anticipate ours to be, and uses the same food vendor we plan to use, as well as on actual quotes fromthe food vendor, Revolution Foods.

We assume a 70% participation rate in full price school lunch purchases at a purchase price of $3.50, which is what Hola experienced at this price point, and a FRL rate of 20% – slightly higher than Hola’s.

In addition to concerns about fair competition among food service vendors and the fairness of the charter school random student selection process, this simple passage about school lunch creates what I see as a significant legal and civil rights issue. As you can see from Attachment A, the anticipated composition of the DaVinci Charter School, if similar to Hola, or any other charter school in Hoboken, would only serve to further segregate a population of children who have already experienced a segregative effect.

In addition, you will also see the following on page 1-80 of the DaVinci application:

Hoboken is just over a square mile, and most children walk to school. Many of our students would probably come from within a half mile of our location, given that the bulk of new 3-bedroom construction is in the Northwest area of Hoboken. All streets in Hoboken have sidewalks, and it is a very walking-friendly town.

Attachment C is a printout of three bedroom housing available in Hoboken on April 23, 2012. I have highlighted the units from the north part of town where the student enrollment is anticipated. I included this information to give you a sense of the real estate values so you can further understand the socioeconomic differences between the students intended to enroll in the DaVinci Charter School and the students already attending the non-charter Hoboken Schools. You can also see vast differences in socioeconomics based on attachment A where you will see the number of students in free and reduced lunch at each of the non charter public schools and you can compare this to the anticipated DaVinci population where only 20% of the students are projected as free and reduced lunch students.

Laura Siegel, the would be founder and Principal of the proposed DaVinci Charter School, spoke to me directly about the anticipated student enrollment. She stated to me that she is interested in bringing back into the public schools a number of students currently enrolled in private schools. This plan does not bode well for the students in our non-charter public schools due to the fact that the private school student enrollment intended for the DaVinci Charter School means that there would simply be a decrease in funding for our existing students. I am concerned that despite a required random selection process, the DaVinci founders have already stated their desired student demographic, and they have actually put this in writing. This is troubling and at odds with what I believe the New Jersey Department of Education seeks in charter school enrollment based on the existence of 18A:36A-8 (e) which reads as follows:

The admission policy of the charter school shall, to the maximum extent practicable, seek the enrollment of a cross section of the community’s school age population including racial and academic factors.

The DaVinci founders would like to open their school at the Monroe Center in Hoboken. It is important to understand that space is at a premium in Hoboken and the existing charter schools have struggled with finding space for a number of years. Large parts of the Monroe Center have been vacant for some time. However, the other charter schools in Hoboken have not pursued the use of the Monroe Center despite their desperate need for space. There is a reason the existing charter schools have pursued classroom space at sites other than the Monroe Center. The Monroe Center is zoned as a commercial and industrial site and has been an industrial site throughout most of its history. There are countless examples of problems when former industrial sites are used for other purposes.

I am concerned that a Hoboken city official would provide assurances that a zoning change would happen in advance of any application or other legal process. While industrial usage of the space may not pose a problem, the use of this space as a school may have an impact on the health and well-being of the students due to the historic usage of the site.

At a minimum, I believe the suitability of the Monroe Center for usage as a school location requires further investigation before any charter is granted for the DaVinci Charter School based on 18A:36A-10.

A charter school may be located in part of an existing public school building, in space provided on a public work site, in a public building, or any other suitable location. The facility shall be exempt from public school facility regulations except those pertaining tothe health and safety of the pupils.

We are anticipating a total charter enrollment of approximately 600 students in the 2012-2013 school year. If the DaVinci Charter School is approved and enrollment progresses as outlined in the application, the charter enrollment in Hoboken will exceed 800 students. Under 18A:36A-4, there is language regarding the formation of charter schools and limits to enrollment in excess of 500 students or 25% of the student body of the school district in which the charter is granted, whichever is less. If this enrollment limit is applied to this district, we already have a charter enrollment in excess of 500 students and 25% of the student body.

I think it is important to consider the full impact of charter numbers on the school district overall and by grade level. When you analyze the charter grade level enrollments (the charters in Hoboken are focused primarily on the elementary grades) and look to the future, we are rapidly approaching a point where there will be an equal numbers of charter elementary students as there are regular public school elementary students without the addition of another charter school. We also face a system of disjointed educational programs because many of the students would have to return to the non-charter public schools or attend school elsewhere based on the limited grade levels that exist with most of the Hoboken charter schools. Hola Charter School has a charter to operate up until the middle grades and the same applies to the DaVinci application. The students exiting the charter schools (and their parents) face some difficult educational decisions due to this planned lack of continuity into the middle grades.

Financially, the creation of another school would be devastating to the operation of the Hoboken non-charter public schools (Attachment D). This year, the charter schools, due to increased enrollment and a seemingly changed school funding formula, experienced an enormous increase in funding and there was a corresponding decrease in funding for our non-charter public schools. While on the surface it appeared that the Hoboken non-charter public schools received a significant increase in slate aid, the increased charter school allocation led the district to actually experience a reduction of nearly $400,000. If the DaVinci charter is granted, the increased enrollment will continue to have an impact on the students attending the regular public schools by forcing additional reductions in funding to support their academic programs.

In terms of programs, the creation of another charter school would inhibit progress in our school district. We are interested in possibly establishing a middle school program to rectify some issues that exist in the district including our own demographic issues.

Currently, we are housing our eighth graders at Hoboken High School. Many parents have expressed concerns about this practice. We also have middle school aged students attending our elementary schools. At Wallace School, many of our middle grade students are housed in temporary trailers. We are exploring the idea of opening a middle school at the same time the DaVinci Charter School would open if the charter is granted. The requirement for the district to pay for the anticipated enrollment up front would prevent us from creating the middle school program we desperately need because we would be unable to increase our budget within cap to fund both.

When you consider the issue of efficiency and the general belief that there are economics of scale, the idea of operating five separate school districts (four- charter districts and one public non charter) within one square mile seems contradictory to any efforts to increase efficiency. Further review of the proposed staffing for the DaVinci Charter School (found under the application Section 13 Human Resources) indicates that only six classroom teachers would actually be hired to educate the students with subs and a variety of other support staff, administrators, and contracted service providers making up the balance of the proposed staffing. Section 2-2 (Detailed Budget Narrative) indicates projected instructional expenses of approximately $675,000 while projected administrative expenses total approximately $438,000. 1 would like to share more information about comparative costs at charter schools for administration, but I learned that charter school budgets are not available for public review. I was very surprised to learn that charter school budgets cannot be reviewed by the public even though they are public schools.

I suggest that a number of corrective steps must take place immediately to end the segregative effect that already exists based on the enrollment facts presented for the three previously established charter schools in Hoboken. I request an evaluation of the required random selection process for charter students because I do not believe that the segregative effect of the Hoboken charter schools can be explained as a random occurrence. At a minimum, it appears that the charter schools are in violation of 18A:36A-8. The existing charter schools in Hoboken are not seeking a cross section of enrollment in the community’s school age populations including racial and academic factors. If the 25% or 500 student rule applies in Hoboken, then I believe that the NJDOE must immediately take steps to limit increases in charter school enrollment because the enrollment already surpasses the limitations established by law.

I recognize that there are many reasons why a group of parents would like to form a school with a focus on science and technology. I share their belief that school programs with a particular focus or theme would add to the many educational opportunities in Hoboken. In fact, the middle school program under consideration would probably operate with multiple career or academic focus opportunities for the students. We are already using the FOSS science program. This is the same science program proposed for use at DaVinci. We are also considering a new math program, possibly the same program proposed at DaVinci (Singapore Math). The DaVinci School would likely duplicate many initiatives we have in place or are planning. Children attending the charter and non-charter public schools would benefit greatly from this middle school program that will most likely never come to fruition with another charter school approval in Hoboken. The middle school program and the other accompanying changes that would be necessary in the district to allow for a middle school would serve to bring the community together as opposed to further segregating the children.

Overall, there is a need in Hoboken for a focus and enhancement of middle level educational opportunities as opposed to an effort to duplicate educational services at the elementary level while simultaneously incurring significant administrative costs. In addition to the three other existing charter schools, there are a number of private schools in operation in Hoboken such as Stevens Co-Op, The Hudson School, The Mustard Seed School and a variety of others. One basis for the charter school movement is to offer parents options. There are already a surprising variety of educational options in Hoboken.

Recently, there was an article appearing in the news where you questioned the legal expenses that a school district incurred in opposing all application for a charter school. I would like to make you aware that this district did not incur legal expenses thus far in connection with the DaVinci application. More than likely, there are other legal points that could be made regarding the DaVinci application, but have not been made because I did not confer with our school attorney. At the same time, I am concerned about future legal expenses related to this charter application due to the delicate nature of the issues.

In closing, I would like to note that this letter may or may not reflect the opinions of the individual members of the Hoboken Board of Education. The Hoboken Board of Education may or may not take their own action in expressing their opinion regarding the possible formation of the DaVinci Charter School. While I am not opposed to charter schools in many cases, and I understand that there can be benefits with a system of charter schools, I am opposed to the application for the DaVinci Charter School for the many reasons noted above.

Sincerely Yours,

Mark Toback
Superintendent of School

Copy:       Hoboken Board of Education Members
Monica Tone

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Note: The above content has been obtained via scanning software and is deemed reliable but not guaranteed.

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Kathy Zucker

Author: Kathy Zucker

Mom of 3. Accidental entrepreneur. Fencer. New York Life Shorty Award #KeepGoodGoing winner & judge. Helping parents & kids get to work since 2010 as Metro Moms Network CEO.

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