Winslow school loses charter

Posted: March 03, 2013

The Institute for Excellence Charter School in Winslow Township must close at the end of this school year because of "extraordinarily low" standardized test scores and poor leadership, the New Jersey Department of Education told the school this week.

The school, founded in 2009, was denied renewal of its charter in its first regular state review. Jersey City's Liberty Academy also lost its charter; a decision is pending for Camden's Freedom Academy.

The state's decision leaves the Institute for Excellence's 480 kindergartners through fifth graders and its 70 staff and faculty in flux while school administrators decide whether to appeal through the courts. School officials learned of the decision through an e-mail to the school's acting director, Diane Osburne, just after 5 p.m. Thursday.

"... It cannot be concluded that the school has provided, nor has the capacity to provide, students with a high-quality education," an attached letter said. "The decision to close a charter school is one of the most difficult decisions we have to make, and it is not one we take lightly."

Last year, 41.4 percent of the school's students demonstrated proficiency in the language arts literacy portion of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK), and 46.5 percent were proficient in math.

Those proficiency rates put the school in the lowest-performing 9 percent of schools in the state, according to the letter. In both language arts and math, the school performed below the Winslow Township School District.

"In other words, they have 51 percent of their students not passing that proficiency," said Barbara Morgan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. "The point of comparing it to the district is that charter schools are intended to provide an educational opportunity where there are unmet needs in a high-needs district, where you want to be able to provide high-quality options to all of our students."

The state also looks at trends in growth, the school's finances, and a visit, Morgan said, that "gives us a really good sense of what's going on in the classroom." The Institute for Excellence had its site visit Jan. 15.

Osburne acknowledged that the results were low, but said the school had made changes this year in areas such as curriculum, lesson planning, and professional development that were not included in the review.

"The renewal is a backward-looking-type thing," she said. "I believe we were well on our way to improving our test scores."

Osburne became acting director in November after the previous director was placed on administrative leave. She would not comment on his departure, and the department said in its letter that "administrative changes have caused instability," with three administrators leading the school in its first four-year term.

The school opened in 2009 with 236 students in kindergarten and first and second grades. A grade has been added each year, so the state has testing data for only the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.

Testing begins in third grade, Osburne said, which left the school in the position of having been tested only twice during its first term.

"Two years doesn't seem like an adequate amount of time to make a profound difference," Osburne said, watching teachers stream past her office for a meeting about the state's decision. "There is some learning curve, and we are clearly on our way."

Starting a school is difficult, agreed Carlos Perez, the president and CEO of the nonprofit New Jersey Charter School Association, but the early years are critical to the school's long-term success.

"The first few years at the school, there's often a lot of turmoil, a lot of change," he said. "What we're seeing, though, is after a while, certain indicators start to emerge."

Charter schools have a 90 percent likelihood of remaining where they are after the first five years, he said, citing a Stanford University study.

Parents learned about the state decision Thursday night through an automated phone system. Two mothers said Friday that they hoped the school won an appeal. The decision came out of nowhere, they said, and they had not yet told their first graders.

For now, school will continue normally. A book fair that started Friday will continue Saturday. Students in uniform will be back next week. And faculty will teach, Osburne said, with a smile on their faces.

"What happens now is, we're going to demonstrate what kind of teachers we are. . . . We're not going to walk around here boo-hooing," Osburne said. "We're all about the children and we've always been about the children. We're sorry the state didn't see that."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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