Teachers at the Galloway Community Charter School have a major incentive to work over the summer.
If they cannot show sufficient student improvement, the Galloway Township school, currently the only elementary charter school in Atlantic County, could lose its charter in 2014 and be forced to close next June.
The state Department of Education put the 16-year-old Galloway Township school on probation last month, one of three in the state put on notice that their five-year charter renewal is in jeopardy.
The decision was based on student performance on state tests. The probation letter from the state said that while students in grades six through eight at the charter school were performing 7 percent better on state tests in language arts than students in the Pleasantville School District, the charter school's passing rates were 2 percent behind in math.
The state agreed to use Pleasantville as the home district because more than half of the school's students come from that city.
The charter school has submitted a remedial plan to the state, noting that it began its own remedial efforts during 2009-10 because of unpredictable achievement level year to year. That plan included having teachers work three days per week during the summer to revise curriculum and get training on how they can better reach all students.
Based on their experience trying multigrade classes in 2012-13, the school will group students based more on academic level rather than just their age and grade.
Last year, the school used a revised student report card that gave parents more detailed information on how their children were performing.
The school also stopped taking transfer students after the school year began, since they tended to be students who were already performing poorly and it was disruptive for the teachers and the other students.
"We'd start getting calls right after the first marking period," said Deborah Nataloni, founder and lead administrator at the charter school.
Teachers have already begun meeting this summer, developing lesson plans that mesh with the state standards and the new national Common Core standards. They will also work on using student performance data to improve instruction.
Nataloni said a major challenge is that students who transfer to the school are typically performing below average in their public school, yet the state expects charter schools to show test results that are better than the public school average.
She said they can show that individual students improve in the charter school, but that doesn't always show up in the overall average.
"The state is taking averages, but that is often not a good representation," said Bruce Kowalski, a consultant who has been working with the school. "The students who come here are improving faster than in the public school. You have to look at where the individual student started, and where they finished."
The school's new state performance report shows that Galloway Community Charter School is meeting 100 percent of its performance targets in academic achievement and student growth. It outperformed 84 percent of schools with students in a similar demographic in student growth.
About 77 percent of the students in the charter school were considered economically disadvantaged in 2011-12, and more than 90 percent were minorities. Its comparison schools include Woodbine and Egg Harbor City.
Teachers said the older students are aware of the school's probationary status and have asked what they can do to help the school stay open.
"They want the school to stay open for their siblings," said eighth-grade teacher Melissa Bentley, who has taught at the school for six years.
Donna Stopira, who teaches seventh grade, said they sometimes get students who have learning disabilities that have never been diagnosed because parents don't want their child to be labeled. By being in a smaller school, the child may be able to get the extra attention they need without the label.
About 16 percent of the students in the charter school do have some type of disability, which is on par with the state average.
Jenny Mendez, of Pleasantville, has taught at the school for seven years but first sent her three girls, now 15, 17 and 18 to the school. The oldest is now at Rowan University, and several nieces and nephews also attend the charter school.
She said one of her daughters has a learning disability, but the public school resisted her efforts to have her tested when she started school there. She got the help she needed at the charter school. When Mendez returned to college to get a teaching degree, she started substituting at the charter school, then got a job there.
The school has also done parent surveys, and they show satisfaction increasing with the changes. As they have done every year since the school opened, teachers will visit each family at home before school begins in September.
"Just asking parents what they think makes a difference," Nataloni said. "It makes them part of the team."
The N.J. Charter Schools Association has also been working with the schools that were put on probation or given warnings as they prepare for their charter renewals. Donna Siminski, director of policy and advocacy for the association, said the new state renewal process for charters is more challenging, and charters are held to a higher standard that includes performing better than the public schools in their home district.
Siminski said she is comfortable that Galloway is on the right track for renewal. Teachers also said they are confident they can succeed.
"The philosophy of the school is the same - students first," said Barbara Pouls, who has taught there for 13 years. "We tell the students that this is all about you. We want you to do well."
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