I’m Celebrating How Newark Took Charter Schools From the Fringe to the Center

(Michele Mason is executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, founded in 2008 to help provide all Newark students with access to great schools in collaboration with district efforts to improve the quality of Newark public education.)

All parents deserve access to a high-quality school that nurtures and supports their children. But despite best intentions, many Newark parents continue to struggle finding great schools in the neighborhoods where they live.

Many children fall victim to failing schools simply because of the ZIP codes they call home. Far too often, where children live can either propel them toward their destiny or block their blessings altogether.

My educational journey began with a tough decision that required my parents to make significant sacrifices.

You see, my twin sister and I failed kindergarten. The teachers decided they were going to put us in a pilot program for “special needs” kids. But our parents decided on a different educational path. They enrolled us in Catholic school, and that decision made all the difference—not just in my education, but in my attitudes toward education.

This is why I believe in parent choice.

The charter movement started with education entrepreneurs who desired to start public schools that were innovative and independent, different from traditional public schools.

Like pioneers on the frontier, this goal instilled a can-do attitude and rugged individualism that defied the odds to offer truly great choices to families and children, especially those previously underserved. But, over time, the frontier becomes the heartland, and the charter movement, once on the edges of education reform, is now at its center.

This natural evolution in the movement demands fresh thinking beyond rugged individualism to collective action that benefits all.

This has been our experience in Newark. In 1997, two pioneer schools—Robert Treat Academy and North Star Academy—opened their doors to students. By 2007, 10 charter schools served 9 percent of public school students in the city. That first decade saw limited interaction among charter schools in the city, and even less with the district. The focus was appropriately inward, each school working on its own program.

As more parents turned to charters, school operators, supporters and advocates began to recognize an opportunity beyond individual schools serving discrete Newark neighborhoods. By sharing resources and coordinating activities, the charter movement could accelerate systemic change in Newark’s public schools, ultimately benefiting all.

In that context, 10 years ago this month the Newark Charter School Fund (NCSF) was conceived as an intermediary to spark collaboration among charters, with advocates and funders—and ultimately with the district—to leverage the charter movement into transformational education reform.

By reframing the charter movement in Newark from isolated innovation to systemic change, the fund itself attracted over $50 million to Newark charter schools. This work set the stage in 2010 for a $200 million investment in both district and charter public schools from Mark Zuckerberg and other matching partners. With these additional resources, the number of charter operators almost doubled in the second decade to 19, and enrollment share more than tripled to nearly a third of all students.

Beyond supporting quality growth, the Newark Charter School Fund became the primary platform to convene charter leaders and connect them to their district counterparts. This led to several joint initiatives which have dramatically improved educational opportunities in Newark.

In 2013, this resulted in a joint district-charter strategy to turn around some of the district’s lowest-performing schools by restarting them under the management of charter operators. As the portfolio of charter and district options grew, NCSF partnered with the district in 2014 to develop a common enrollment system to provide equitable access to all public schools.

Early on, there was considerable resistance among charter operators to join with each other and the district on enrollment. Each charter saw other public schools as competition, and did not want to relinquish control to admissions, a key driver of funding and growth.

But the fund helped convince most charters that an enrollment system where parents had to submit separate applications to multiple district and charter schools, particularly as options grew, was neither sustainable nor equitable. Today, common enrollment, in addition to being parent friendly, represents the largest and most successful collaboration between Newark charter and district schools, with over 95 percent of public education seats in Newark served by the system.

Most recently, the fund has been organizing Newark charter school collaboration toward better serving students with special needs. Early efforts at informal collaboration evolved into the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative, a membership organization that provides support services for schools not only in Newark but across the state.

I hope the Newark experience inspires parents and educators across the nation to find more ways to work together, and with other public education partners, to find innovative solutions that not only help your own school but transform public education system for your city or state as a whole.

Every child can go to a great school, with exceptional leaders and inspiring educators who believe in them and encourage students to dream big.

What do you think?

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