When officials at Oceanside Charter School in Atlantic City were notified in February that their charter would not be renewed after 14 years of operation, school founder and administrator Jeanine Middleton knew trying to fight the state Department of Education would be useless.

When compared with the average test scores of all public schools in Atlantic City, the charter school did fall short.

But in April, the state released its new school performance reports that included a list of peer schools against which each school is ranked. Three Atlantic City public schools are in Oceanside’s peer group — the Uptown Complex, Dr. Martin Luther King Complex and New York Avenue School.

According to the reports, Oceanside performed better than all three public schools in most criteria. Yet those are the same three public schools almost all of the Oceanside students will have to return to in the fall.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Middleton said. “This is such a disservice to the students. The state is shutting down a school that was outperforming its peers.”

The plight of Oceanside, one of three New Jersey charter schools not renewed this year, demonstrates the increased challenges facing the state’s charter schools. The state Department of Education and Gov. Chris Christie have made it clear that while they strongly support charter schools, if they are going to take students from public schools, the charters must prove they can produce strong academic results.

“It’s not just good enough to measure against other failing schools,” said Carlos Perez, president and CEO of the N.J. Charter Schools Association. “You have to show a high rate of student growth.”

State officials said the charter renewals are not based just on comparisons with the district, but also whether the charter is meeting its mission. They said Oceanside still had too many under-performing students.

A statement from the Department of Education said: “We firmly believe that it is a privilege to operate a school in New Jersey, and we are committed to holding all schools to high standards. Charter schools have the privilege of additional autonomy, and with that comes the expectation that they will meet the expectations of their charter. When a school is not meeting these standards, they no longer are afforded this privilege.”

While Oceanside parents said they also support high standards, they complain they are now left with few alternatives that provide them.

“Realistically, what most of us are going to do is send our kids back to one of those three (public) schools,” said parent Ibn Ali Abdullah, who has two children in the preschool and kindergarten programs at Oceanside.

A possible new option arose this week when the Atlantic City Community Charter School, which was approved in January 2011 but has yet to open, was approved by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to lease the Oceanside School site.

The new school, to be run by a professional charter school management company, CSMI in Chester, Pa., has until June 30 to prove to the state Department of Education it can be ready to open in September. Middleton said if CSMI can arrange to just take over her school, hire her staff and recruit her students, they might be able to do it. CSMI has not responded to requests for comment.

But charter schools have had a very rough time in Atlantic County. Other than Oceanside, just two remain, the K-8 Galloway Community Charter School in Galloway Township and Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point. No new applicants applied this year, and a half-dozen other approved charter schools have either closed or never opened.

Deborah Nataloni, founder and administrator at the Galloway school, said it is much harder to operate a charter school today.

“It’s changed a lot since 1997 when a group of parents could get together and apply,” she said. “Today, you need a background in education and business just to do the application.”

More charter schools are partnering with professional charter management companies. Freedom Academy Charter School in Camden was put on probation by the state, but got its charter renewed in April after contracting with New York-based charter management company Democracy Prep. Perez said proven charter management companies have the experience and the support to open quickly.

Parents of students at Oceanside said the state should also have to consider what alternatives parents have if the charter school closes. They met last month to discuss their options before anyone was aware of the proposed new school.

Nataloni said they already have about 30 students from Atlantic City in the Galloway school, and a number of Oceanside parents attended her open house this month.

Keisha Williams said she looked into sending her two children to Catholic school but can’t afford the tuition. She planned to look into the Galloway Community Charter School, even though it was quite a distance for her children, now in preschool and first grade, to travel each day.

But most parents said their only real option might be the city public schools in their neighborhood — Uptown, MLK and New York Avenue. No one knows yet how many students and what grades the new school would serve. Oceanside PTA President Mona Switzer said parents would be willing to consider the new school, but she has a lot of questions and so far no information.

Some parents said they believe the curriculum at the public schools has improved. They said it’s the atmosphere and behavioral issues that concern them. They chose Oceanside not just for the education, but because it was a safe place where students don’t fight and can learn better. They said the neighborhood schools tend to reflect the disputes going on in their neighborhoods.

Middleton said the state system rewards charter schools that can attract the better students away from the public school districts and discourages applicants who want to reach the most disadvantaged children. She lives in Atlantic City, taught in the city schools and said she intentionally located her school on Bacharach Boulevard because she wanted to offer another option to families in those neighborhoods.

In her renewal application she cited how the neighborhood schools in Atlantic City are strongly divided by race and cultural norms.

“If I had located near Richmond Avenue or Chelsea Heights, this would be a very different school,” she said. “But this is where I wanted to be.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241

 

SCHOOL RANKINGS

The chart below shows the state percentile rank of Oceanside Charter School and the three public schools in the neighborhoods where most of the charter school students live. The higher the percentile rank, the better the school’s performance.

The academic achievement rank is based on students test results on state ASK tests.

The college and career readiness rank is based on absentee rates and the number of students taking algebra in middle school.

The student growth rank is based on the improvement in student test scores from one year to the next, as compared with similar students.

    Oceanside    MLK Complex    New York Ave.    Uptown Complex

Academic achievement    19    16    9    12

College and career readiness    4    23    10    5

Student growth    15    13    1    2

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.