The operators of two Camden charter schools ordered to close by the state for poor academic performance accused regulators Thursday of favoring larger and more established charter operators at their expense.
City Invincible Charter School, near Lanning Square, received a letter last week saying its second year in the city would be its last. D.U.E. Season Charter in Liberty Park is appealing its March notification that its charter would not be renewed. City Invincible has not determined if it will appeal.
The June closings come as larger charter and "Renaissance" school operators plan to open as early as fall. KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy has plans to open with about 100 kindergartners in Lanning Square, and Mastery and Uncommon Schools plan to open schools, pending final state approval, in temporary locations before building permanent facilities.
"They want charter operators that have a track record," said City Invincible principal John Frangipani. "Obviously, we're new, so I think possibly they want to cut their losses quickly. But they knew when they approved our charter we were new."
Randy Ribay, vice president of City Invincible's board, expressed skepticism about the action by the Department of Education.
"I think it's very fishy that this comes the same year that Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon are coming in," Ribay said. "When you get down to it, there's limited buildings, limited students to enroll, so shutting us down like this, it doesn't add up."
D.U.E. founder Doris Carpenter said the action amounts to "institutional racism."
"I think it's unconscionable that they're moving out the independent charters to make room for their turnaround proposal, the Renaissance schools, the KIPP schools," Carpenter said.
D.U.E. officials said many of their students are from Lanning Square.
KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is being created as a partnership of KIPP, one of the largest charter operators in the country; the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper University Hospital; and the Norcross Foundation, established by the Norcross family, which includes George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper, a Democratic leader, and one of The Inquirer's owners.
Carpenter said she tried to get a meeting with Norcross recently because she said she had "concerns about his influence in what's going on." She acknowledged she did not have proof of influence being exerted.
Norcross spokesman Dan Fee said Norcross had no involvement in the action taken on the charters and exerted no influence in the matter.
Carpenter said she was contacted on Norcross' behalf by Susan Bass Levin, Cooper Foundation president, who she said offered to hear her concerns. Carpenter said she declined to speak with Levin.
Levin said Norcross asked her to call Carpenter because she handles "community outreach for the foundation and the Renaissance school."
Education Department spokesman Michael Yaple declined to address the individual allegations by both Camden charters but defended the state's actions.
"New Jersey has been a strong supporter of charter schools. However, charter schools must provide children with a quality education," Yaple said.
Both D.U.E. and City Invincible's nonrenewal notices cite poor academic performance and a lack of confidence in the schools' leadership.
Last year, City Invincible, a K-6 school with 275 students, ranked among the lowest in the state on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK). Eleven percent of students passed the language arts exam and 23 percent passed math, both below the Camden district averages, the notice states.
D.U.E.'s notice states that 26 percent of its students taking the test passed language arts and 45 percent passed math, rates higher than the Camden schools. The K-8 school has about 560 students.
Officials for the two schools, however, said they were not given enough time or opportunity to prove the schools could turn around. Both received their termination letters before their students got to take this year's NJASKs.
Carpenter said D.U.E.'s probation was supposed to last until the end of June. She said a remediation plan was submitted to the state in June, was not acknowledged until December, was implemented, and was resulting in higher achievement.
If D.U.E. closes, Carpenter said, most of her students will end up in lower performing district schools. D.U.E. also offers three meals a day and afterschool, summer, and weekend programs.
She also accused the state of inconsistency. She said at least one charter in Camden with similar performance to D.U.E. is being allowed to stay open.
City Invincible's Frangipani said officials expected low results in their first year and had implemented a series of changes, including a behavioral health program and more teachers.
"We were meeting the benchmarks we set and that are required by the Department of Ed., and we shared that with them," he said. "At least give us two years of scores to see if we can show growth."
At dismissal Thursday, City Invincible parents were circulating a petition to try to save their school.
"Where are we supposed to send them to?" asked Theresa Lee, who complained about her son's experience at Cooper's Poynt School last year. "Even though he was young, I didn't feel he was being pushed. One year here, he can read, he's doing math, he's confident in himself."
Carlos Perez, spokesman for the New Jersey Charter School Association, called the action on City Invincible one of the fastest reviews and closures the state has made.
"In this particular situation, where you have a [multiple-year] charter and one year of data, that's definitely one of the quicker turn-arounds on a decision that we've seen," Perez said. "The second year of data would be available soon - the kids are taking NJASK right now. I think that especially when a school is opening with such a large grade range, the ability to show improvement ought to be there."
Under the law, schools are granted four-year charters, which Perez says allows them the opportunity to grow and improve, but the law also says the state can revoke a charter at any time, he said.
"If schools are underperforming and not meeting the needs of children, then those schools should be shut down, period," Perez said.
Brendan Lowe, a Camden public schools spokesman, said the district respected the state's actions.
"We want all public schools to thrive, and we will continue to support charter, district, and Renaissance schools so our students can attend the excellent schools they deserve," Lowe said.