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Stifling Success

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Stifling Success

The public education establishment tried to destroy a distinguished charter school in New Jersey. July 19, 2017
Education

The city of Hoboken has spent three years and more than $200,000 of taxpayer money in an effort to impede the growth of its most successful school. HoLa (formally the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School) first opened in autumn 2010. The innovative 385-student charter school offers a content-rich curriculum delivered in both Spanish and English. Last year, HoLa ranked in the top 10 percent of all public schools in the state in terms of math and English test scores, and outpaced all other schools in Hoboken.

Like most charters, HoLa started with students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade and then added a grade each year as students moved up. In 2013, with its oldest students about to enter sixth grade, and HoLa’s initial five-year charter up for renewal, the school asked the state department of education for permission to add grades seven and eight in order to continue to serve its current students until they reached high school.

The state granted permission, but the Hoboken board of education filed suit to prevent HoLa’s expansion. Why would the city not want its most successful school to expand? The simple truth is that the anti-charter board of education saw an opportunity to thwart a charter’s expansion. The lawsuit, however, alleged that HoLa’s expansion would aggravate racial segregation and harm the district financially. Both claims are spurious.

HoLa receives about $11,000 per student, with zero money for facilities, while the district spends double that amount per pupil in its district schools. The school survives financially only because it rents space from the Hoboken Boys and Girls Club, which offers HoLa a reasonable rate and uses the building during after-school hours.

Currently, the demographic composition of HoLa’s student population is 54 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black, and 7 percent Asian; 12 percent of students come from families with income low enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. While it’s true that the student population of the district is less-white and more low-income, HoLa’s student body more closely reflects Hoboken’s general population: many affluent, white parents choose to send their children to private school. But Hoboken’s demographic composition is changing rapidly in any case: since HoLa opened in 2010, the percentage of white students in the district schools has increased from 22 percent to 33 percent and the percentage of students qualifying for the free or reduced school lunches has decreased from 69 percent to 53 percent.

The notion that HoLa is an instrument of segregation is especially noxious if one knows the history of the school and its founders. “HoLa was created to embrace the rich diversity of our community here in Hoboken,” notes Barbara Martinez, one of the school’s founders—and a daughter of Cuban immigrants. Initially, HoLa’s founders didn’t even want to open a charter. “The original idea,” explains Martinez, “was to set up a dual-language program in Connors elementary,” the city’s most segregated, lowest-performing school. The district rejected that possibility, so HoLa was established as a charter.

After it opened, HoLa sought to institute a weighted lottery system that would give preference to low-income students. That option violated state policy, so HoLa officials went door-to-door in local housing projects, distributing leaflets to ensure that low-income parents knew about of the school. HoLa’s founders repeatedly tried to persuade the state to change its lottery policy, and when it did so in 2015, HoLa became the first charter school in New Jersey to adopt a low-income preference in its admissions policy.

Parents care most about the quality of education their children are receiving, and HoLa delivers high-quality learning. During a visit this spring, I saw a fourth-grade teacher conduct an inspired lesson, in English, based on Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “Cynthia in the Snow” and the poet’s use of onomatopoeia. Students then had fun writing their own weather-themed poems using words like “swoosh,” “splat,” and “slap.” In a class across the hall, a teacher was conducting a similar lesson using Spanish poetry. After a week, the two classes would switch, thereby exposing students to both languages and cultures.

After the Hoboken board of education first filed its lawsuit against the state department of education in March 2014, the court requested that the department further study the board’s complaints and issue a report. One year later, the department issued a report that found no evidence to back up the board’s claims. Not satisfied, in April 2015, the board requested the court issue a stay preventing HoLa’s expansion. The motion was denied.

Facing criticism that continuing the lawsuit was a waste of taxpayer money, the Hoboken board of education then created a private legal fund in order to continue to fund the litigation. Four board members contributed. In June, 2015, the board again requested an emergency stay to prevent HoLa’s rising seventh graders from retuning in the fall. That request was also denied by the court.

In May, three appellate court judges heard arguments from both sides. On June 29, one week after HoLa graduated its first eighth-grade class, the court decisively rejected Hoboken’s claims that HoLa has a negative “segregative and funding impact” on the city: the court’s decision repeatedly notes that the Hoboken board of education failed to provide data in support of its contentions. HoLa officials estimate that well over $200,000 in taxpayer money was spent by HoLa, the Hoboken board of education, and the New Jersey department of education on the litigation.

The board of education hasn’t said whether it will appeal the decision, but seven of the nine members of Hoboken’s city council have issued strong statements urging the board of education to move on. “It’s about time we end this senseless lawsuit and start worrying about educating our children as our top priority,” Councilman Michael Russo stated. “Let’s focus on providing our teachers the tools to make our public school system, which include our charter schools, the best in the state.” That’s good advice, and it will best serve the children of Hoboken if it is heeded.

Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

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