NEWARK, NJ — When BRICK Education Network stepped in to manage Newark's Marion P. Thomas Charter School in 2019, the school suffered from high staff turnover and low-test scores.

In the 2018-19 school year, only 29% of the students in elementary school were proficient in English language arts compared with 37% for the district and 58% for the state. In math, just 19 percent were proficient in math compared to 30% for the district and 45% for the state. Just 2% of the high school students were proficient in math.

After one year under BRICK's management, Marion P. Thomas saw a 78% drop in suspensions, reported an increase of students on track to meet their assessment goals in all grade levels across the network and nearly $1.4 million in savings as the schools' finances were centralized.

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Yet despite the hopeful beginnings of the turnaround effort, the Marion P. Thomas Board of Trustees decided to end the relationship with the charter management organization (CMO). The board voted on Monday to not renew its contract with BRICK.

BRICK entered into a contract in July 2019 with the Marion P. Thomas charter schools (STEAM Academy, PAC Academy and Marion P. Thomas Charter High School) to manage the schools' finances and operations such as human resources, marketing, communications, and oversee the schools’ curriculum.

“I knew that we needed to make a change in order to help the village to move forward,” board chair Rev. Vincent Rouse said. “Trustees on any school district do not always have the ability to oversee all aspects of a school district.”

During Monday's meeting, the charter school board of trustees provided an evaluation of the CMO’s operations during the 2019-20 school year, which laid out various faults the board found with the organization. 

The evaluation was broken down into 43 questions across five categories: human resources, student achievement, finance, fundraising and marketing. In the evaluation summary, it reported that multiple discrepancies were found in BRICK's operations. 

Multiple examples highlighted in the report claimed that there was a lack of transparency from the CMO to provide the charter school's chief administrator with information on BRICK's procedures and data to evaluate students' performance and information to determine if adequate training and evaluations for teachers was being provided. 

“The board either did not recall any of these activities happening or believed it did not happen, in whole or part,” the report said. 

The decision, however, could affect the charter schools’ 1,500-plus students through services and resources that the CMO provides. 

“Our main concern is what’s going to happen to these students and their families at this point,” BRICK CEO Dominique Lee told TAPinto Newark. “[BRICK] is very much about providing wraparound services to these students… During this pandemic, all students of color are struggling. In Newark, where many folks are living on very stretched means, this is concerning to do this in the middle of a pandemic.”

As the contract expires, the curriculum implemented by BRICK could potentially be replaced while the school would lose additional services and resources the CMO provided. 

“We’re saddened to hear that the vital turnaround efforts at Marion P. Thomas Charter School could come to a halt," said Kyle Rosenkrans, the executive director of the New Jersey Children's Fund. "We urge all the parties to work together to find a path toward continued improvement of this vital community institution that has seen many struggles over the years.”

Adeel Ahmed, president of the Marion P. Thomas Education Association, which represents the non-administrative staff of the elementary and middle schools, said the union has had a "solutions oriented relationship with the current administration, where our voices are heard and our concerns are generally addressed."

“Regardless of the decision made, we want to move forward in making sure that whatever decisions that are made and considered are in the interests of our scholars and our members who work hard everyday for our scholars," Ahmed said. "We intend to work to build a positive working relationship with the management team moving forward, as we have with the current administration.”

With 250 meeting attendees, public comment was opened near the end of the meeting at which point parents, teachers and other staff expressed numerous concerns about the board’s decision. 

Various issues raised from the public included comments on disruption in the curriculum and losing the support for families that BRICK provides such as Google Chromebooks/Wi-Fi, a touchless food pantry, Lyft rides, rental assistance, and coat giveaways, among many other resources. 

As the contract comes to an end in June, however, Lee said he hopes to hold negotiations with the board, keeping in mind the best interests of the students. 

“I want to stress that we want what’s best for kids and families,” Lee said. “That’s what we are focused on doing and that’s what we are going to engage with them over the next couple of months. And, hopefully, we can get to that point.”