by Adam Clark
on on Thursday, April 5, 2018

Deep in South Jersey, on the sprawling grounds of a summer camp surrounded by rolling farmland, Upper Pittsgrove Township is about to have something in common with the state’s big cities.

The Salem County town, marked by cornfields and country roads, will soon play host to a charter school — perhaps the most visible sign yet of the controversial and far-reaching expansion of school choice in New Jersey.

“It’s uncharted territory,” said Peter Koza, superintendent of the nearby Upper Deerfield School District.

It’s also the newest chapter in the ongoing debate about the future of New Jersey’s public schools, one that centers on whether it’s better to invest in traditional schools or let families vote with their feet.

Supporters say a charter school in South Jersey farm country could be a step toward closing a glaring inequity in the state’s rural communities, where families don’t have access to charter schools and can’t afford private academies.

But critics worry the expansion of charter schools — long clustered in urban areas to serve low-income families with poorly rated schools — will only exacerbate the declining resources of traditional public schools.

And local school officials aren’t sure exactly how things will turn out because, well, they’ve never seen a charter school in a town quite like this before.

“It’s going to be interesting, to say the least,” said Koza, whose district stands to lose students to the new school.

One thing is for sure. The Creativity CoLaboratory Charter School won’t be the typical middle school.

Scheduled to open in Fall 2019 with 96 students, the arts-based school will be at the Appel Farm and Music Center, a 115-acre farm converted into a summer camp and arts center.

Like many charter schools, it will offer not just an alternative but the allure of perks all traditional public schools can’t promise. In this case, it’s 12 students per class, an iPad for every child and free or low-cost after school activities until 6 p.m.

And here’s the cherry on top for kids: There’s no homework.

“We need children to become more excited about going to school every day,” said Cori Solomon, one of the school’s founders. “Wouldn’t it be great if your kid felt like going to school year-round felt as much fun and exciting as it does when you get to go to summer camp?”

The charter schools’ supporters want to offer a choice for families who likely can’t afford private school and who want their child to learn through the arts and technology, said Solomon, the executive director of Appel Farm, which already partners with nearly two dozen schools to provide arts programming.

Salem County is among the few New Jersey counties without a charter school, despite expansion under former Gov. Chris Christie that brought charter schools to new areas, pushing enrollment to roughly 50,000 students.

Though a recent Rutgers University study found students living in 274 different school districts now attend charter schools, up from 198 districts a decade ago, the majority of the state’s 89 charter schools are still in urban areas and predominantly in North Jersey.

That’s all the more reason to open one in Upper Pittsgrove, charter school proponents say.

“There are issues of equity that run across our entire state in every community,” said Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN, an education advocacy organization. “So making sure that there are high quality options for those students is really important.”

However, expansion of charter schools into suburban and rural communities has been divisive and controversial. Consider the failed 2016 proposal to open a French-language charter school in Montclair, which brought out the pitchforks from a parent opposition movement that printed T-shirts and signs, stunning the proposed school’s leaders.

Charter schools have also been accused of skimming from the top of district schools, contributing to school segregation and rejecting special education students, all under the direction of unelected boards that critics say lack accountability. In Red Bank, opponents filed a federal civil rights complaint last year because the local charter school enrollment was only about 40 percent hispanic compared to roughly 80 percent in the school district.

The biggest complaint, though, is almost always the financial impact on traditional public schools, which must pass the majority of their per-pupil spending to a charter school when a student leaves.

That’s the chief concern of Betsy Ginsburg, executive director for The Garden State Coalition of Schools, a coalition of suburban districts.

“No matter whether you are talking suburban, rural or even urban, sometimes the issues are the same,” Ginsburg said. “What is the impact on the students who are left behind in the traditional public schools?”

The Creativity CoLaboratory school plans to pull 80 percent of its students from a group of eight surrounding school districts in Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester counties, which Solomon says should limit the financial impact on any one district.

But there’s some concern among those districts about duplication of services and draining of resources. Koza, the superintendent in Upper Deerfield, said existing charter schools in nearby cities Bridgetown, Vineland and Millville have already taken a small number students from his district.

“This one is difficult to call what the impact is going to be because now you’re in a rural setting, which will be similar to what we have,” he said.

The new school will open during a potential crossroads for New Jersey charter schools, which last fall celebrated the 20th anniversary of the state’s first charter schools opening.

New Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered a comprehensive review of charter school law and wants to bring both sides together to find common ground and see what’s working and what isn’t.

What comes out of that process may ultimately decide whether the charter school in farm country is a new frontier in New Jersey public education or the high-water mark of the Christie-era expansion.


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