Trenton Charter School Leader: Murphy’s Education Department Is Privileging Politics Over Children

Over the last six weeks NJ Education Report has interviewed Trenton and Newark mothers to assess their reactions to the Murphy Administration’s decision to revoke expansion approvals for seven high-performing public charters. The timing of these decisions, so late in the school year, has left these mothers with few (if any) high-quality public educational options for their children. For instance, in Trenton, where 1,200 students sit on waitlists for openings in the city’s charter schools, the only traditional options are Trenton district schools, which have a high school graduation rate of 66 percent. (The charter sector’s rate is 93 percent.)

I wanted to learn whether there were any explanations for the about-face of Murphy’s Department of Education and how this actually unfolded so I spoke to Efe Odeleye who, with her sister Osen Osagie, runs Achievers Early College Prep Charter School in Trenton. For a school with a mission to get students through high school and into college, Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan’s actions this late in the school year are especially distressing. What is the justification for canceling the plans of 90 ninth-grade students and their families who have only three more years of K-12 public education left?

Odeleye explained the process: last fall her school was evaluated, as NJ public charters are every year, with the DOE’s Performance Framework rubric. There are three categories: “Is the Academic Program a Success?,” “Is the School Financially Viable?,” and “Is the School Equitable and Organizationally Sound?” Evaluators answered each categories in the affirmative after looking through the school’s ample documentation and data. Then Achievers Early got a verbal summary–you did great!–from one of the evaluators. They waited for the the full written evaluation and a nod from the decider, Commissioner Allen-McMillan.

But they never received a copy.

Since last fall, Odeleye and her team have tried repeatedly to get the evaluation but the DOE has refused access. Her team did discover that the evaluation, which was supposed to cover both 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, was based solely on student academic growth data from 2019-2020, the school’s founding year. The state neglected to include more recent data (for example, the Start Strong tests that all public school students took in September) which shows Achievers Early students outperforming students in traditional district schools. 

So Achievers Early leaders took the next step in due process, a submission of a “Letter of Consideration.” This is an appeal to Allen-McMillan to reconsider her decision and look more carefully at the data. There was a more substantive legal step they could take—an appeal to the Appellate Court Disputes and Controversies division within 45 days of the denial–-but Odeleye and Osagie were hoping to resolve this without litigation.

In addition to filing the the Letter of Consideration, Achievers Early leadership reached out to the DOE’s Charters and Renaissance Schools Office. The head of the Office is Dr. Julie Bunt, who just two years earlier had written a letter in support of the NJ Public Charter Schools Association’s federal grant proposal because “it will help improve educational outcomes for New Jersey students” who are “served in urban communities.” In the course of these contacts, they found that Orlando Vadel, who worked in that Office and assists with evaluations, had resigned. Why? He felt he couldn’t ethically participate in the DOE’s current charter review process.

They also called County Executive Superintendent Yasmin Hernandez—but that was before she was abruptly fired last month for what she said were “political reasons.”

And with 42 days gone of that 45-day window to file with the Appellate Court, they had their lawyers submit the paperwork for litigation.

Odeleye and her team also met with Trenton Public Schools District’s Superintendent James Earle and Business Administrator Jayne Howard, with whom they have a supportive and collaborative relationship, and proposed a compromise:  Achievers Early had originally planned to enroll all 90 ninth-grade students in their tenth-grade classes. What if, they asked the district, they cut that down to 75 students? Their school’s growth would have less impact on the district and they’d find slots for those 15 students. Earle and Howard liked that idea and said they’d take it back to the school board. 

Since that meeting there’s been radio silence from Trenton Public Schools District, where scores on last fall’s Start Strong assessments are so low that the DOE hides the data. (Pre-pandemic, 20% of high school students met expectations in reading and none did in math.)

Then on April 20th, just two weeks ago, Allen-McMillan responded to their Letter of Consideration and plea to re-examine the data: once again she denied the expansion and refused to consider new evidence–including proficiency scores since 2020, all way ahead of district students. This was in spite of the pleas of parents and students who held a press conference at Achievers Early to protest the Murphy Administration’s denials..

And that’s how we arrived at  April 26th when school leaders had their first hearing with the State Appellate Division. Odeleye says “there are notes of hope there” because the Judge was sympathetic to their reasoning. This Wednesday, May 4th, they’ll have another hearing at the DOE.

Why, I asked Odeleye, was this all happening? It’s such a small expansion–just 90 students–who have already finished ninth grade. Why this unnecessary disruption in what are already chaotic times, especially for low-income Black and Brown children whom this charter serves. “It’s definitely political,” she replied.

In other words, the Murphy Administration’s revocations of the formerly-approved expansions has nothing to do with what’s best for children.

In the meantime, while they wait to see if the state will prioritize students over politics, Achievers Early guidance counselors and other staff are reaching out to other schools to find spots for these students who have been abandoned by the establishment. They keep running into the same problem: except for Trenton Central High School, other schools don’t accept 10th graders so it’s likely, says Odeleye, that this is where the students will end up. This reality, she says, “brings tears to our parents’ eyes. These kids need support and mentorship and some struggle academically. I see their progress being fractured.” She worries that she doesn’t know “if our students will finish high school. I don’t know how many will get the services they need. The level of disruption that’s posed here is tremendous.” [Correction: STEMCivics, a 6th-12th grade public charter in Trenton, accepts 10th-graders.)

Murphy Administration, are you listening?

Laura Waters

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