Questions raised about Oceanside Charter School’s test-score performance hours before a CRDA meeting in June halted an initial vote on whether to grant the school $1.7 million for an expansion project, according to emails obtained through an Open Public Records Act request and interviews with officials.
Oceanside officials say that in the nearly two months since they have received little explanation as to why the resolution was pulled from the agenda. They said they have been told only that it has to do with questions about the test scores.
Last year’s state test scores show that Atlantic City public schools outperformed Oceanside until fifth grade, but above that Oceanside scored nearly as high or better than its public school counterparts.
“We don’t understand where it would come from. It was all very sudden,” Oceanside founder and Administrator Jeanine Middleton said. “We are doing as good or better than most. We’re very data-driven, and we’ve always felt as if we’ve provided a superior program.”
The school has operated out of trailers on Bacharach Boulevard for more than a decade. In March, it applied to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for assistance in constructing a $21 million permanent building across from its current facility and adjacent to Brown Memorial Park in the Westside neighborhood of Atlantic City. It had hoped to open the school by the end of 2014 and expand its enrollment to 450 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, up from the current 342.
The CRDA was scheduled for a preliminary vote on the project June 19. That vote would not have allocated the money but would have signaled the project is of the type the agency would consider funding. The resolution was listed on an agenda distributed June 14, but the night before the meeting Oceanside was informed that the measure had been pulled.
An Open Public Records Act request for CRDA emails relating to the project revealed that officials had planned for the item to be on the June agenda for at least a month. In an email on June 29, Oceanside Business Administrator Todd D’Anna asked CRDA Deputy Executive Director Susan Ney Thompson for clarification on what testing data had been questioned and by what office.
Oceanside still does not know the answers to those questions; Middleton said the CRDA has been unable to provide an explanation. Meanwhile, Middleton has requested a meeting with Amy Ruck, acting director of the charter school office at the state Department of Education. She has been told she won’t be able to get on Ruck’s calendar until at least the end of August.
When asked about questions raised regarding Oceanside’s performance, CRDA spokeswoman Kim Butler would not elaborate on the issue, but said the questions that arose came from the state.
“An issue was raised at the state approval level. CRDA has asked for clarification and supportive documentation from the team at Oceanside,” Butler wrote in an email. “This is standard operating procedure, and we look forward to engaging with Oceanside again as soon as they are able to respond.”
Middleton said she told the CRDA she would attempt to determine what happened at the state level through a meeting with the charter school office. Oceanside is also due to have its charter renewed next school year.
State data show that in 2011, Oceanside lagged behind Atlantic City public schools in both language arts and math in third and fourth grade. By eighth grade, however, it outdid the city’s public school students in both subjects.
In 2010, Atlantic City public schools outperformed Oceanside in math until seventh grade. Oceanside pulled ahead of the district in language arts in every grade except third.
Both Oceanside and the district fall behind the state averages in every category. For example in 2011, 76 percent of eighth-graders at Oceanside and 61 percent of eighth-graders in Atlantic City public schools were proficient or advanced in math. That compares to the statewide average of 83 percent.
Of three Atlantic County kindergarten through eighth-grade charter schools, Oceanside was the only one to outperform the local public school district in any areas of 2010 testing. Oceanside, like most charter schools, spends thousands less than public schools to educate each student per year. Oceanside spent $17,418 in the 2011-12 school year on each student; the Atlantic City district spent $25,490.
Oceanside opened in 1999 in the trailers at 1750 Bacharach Blvd. Once before it attempted to move into a permanent home, but the project lost financing after the state discovered the school did not meet the requirements for a $1.9 million grant it received. The funds were only supposed to fund renovations to existing buildings, and the state said it was not aware that the grant would have been dedicated to an entirely new building.
The school also failed to follow public bidding requirements, but Oceanside maintained that the project was never misrepresented and any mistakes were unintentional.
The currently proposed facility would be about 60,000 square feet; the land for the project at Arctic Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard is owned by the Second Baptist Church. Charter school law does not allow the school to purchase vacant land for facilities. The school set up a new nonprofit called the Friends of Oceanside Charter School to facilitate the project and and handle its financing.
The land would be purchased through the nonprofit, which could lease the facility to the school.
“It’s always more challenging to be in a modular site than in a brand-new facility,” Middleton said when asked about the importance of project. “We already feel we provide a superior curriculum, but for charter schools it’s an uphill battle. Having a facility would level that playing field.”
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