The recent New Jersey Charter School Association (NJCSA) conference in Newark was an opportunity for charter schools across the state to come together to share best practices, advocate for charters and pay homage to the pioneers of the charter school movement.

The 9th annual two-day event, held last week at the Robert Treat Hotel, celebrated charter school success more than 20 years after the charter school act took effect, and saluted the trailblazers who helped pave the way to create a a growing charter movement that continues to thrive.

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The conference also gave educators and school administrators a chance to participate in a variety of workshops focused on instructional practices, advocacy and policy, literacy, special education, governance and school leadership, among others.

New Jersey was the 25th state to enact charter school legislation since the New Jersey Charter School Program Act was passed and signed into law in 1995 under former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, with the state’s first charter schools opening in 1997 with 13 schools in five counties and fewer than 1,000 students.

Today, 89 charter schools in 17 counties across the state serve nearly 50,000 students, with Newark boasting 21 charters of its own.

Charter schools are public schools that operate as their own Local Education Agencies (LEA) under a charter granted by the state’s education commissioner, with the New Jersey Department of Education acting as the sole charter school authorizer in New Jersey.

The NJDOE offers charter schools that are consistent with national best practices autonomy and opportunities for innovation in exchange for accountability for student outcomes.

The charter school act requires that local school districts pay charter schools for each student enrolled under a formula that aims to give charter students 90 percent of the funding for students in the district’s traditional public schools.

During the conference’s gala 20-year salute to New Jersey charters, NJSCA President and CEO Nicole Cole noted that although charter schools serve a greater proportion of the state’s economically disadvantaged students, charter students were making incredible gains. She cited a 20-year NJCSA Oct. 10 report that found New Jersey charter school students were on par with their statewide peers.

The State of the Sector report, researched and written by NJCSA, profiles the five largest charter cities--Newark, Camden, Trenton, Jersey City, and Paterson. The report shows the proportion of students being served by public charter schools continues to grow each year, with Newark charter schools serving approximately 35 percent of all public school students in the city.

NJCSA Founding President and CEO Sarah Tantillo noted at the event that the charter movement began long before charter school legislation was enacted, referencing a 1983 education report.

“A Nation at Risk,” published by the U.S. Dept. of Education, cited statistics revealing  the U.S. education system was  spiraling downwards, impeding students from competing in the workforce and a competitive global market.

The report noted abysmal findings—some teens were close to illiterate, achievement test scores were on the decline and high school graduates had far less math instruction that their counterparts in other countries. It advocated for more focus on academic instruction, increased school accountability and higher standards.

A second report, “Action for Excellence,” published by the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, was released the same year. It called for a partnership between the business community and public education.

It was after the publication of this report, which noted the future of the workforce would see “an absolute shortage of labor supply for entry level positions,” that corporate America began turning their attention to the public education sector.

After the report called on the business community to get more involved “in the design and the delivery of education,” the business community banded together and began to apply management practices to school administration and incorporating best practices as a way to reform public education.

The increased focus on education and the need for better management models heralded the beginning of a movement that advocated for privatizing schools and school choice.

Tantillo, a former teacher, recalled the early days when she, along with a group of fearless educators, were determined to move away from the status quo and dive headfirst into serious education reform. 

“The first charter school conference was like a conference full of mad inventors,” she said.

Tintillo spoke with emotion about the first day of North Star Academy, which opened in 1997 with 72 students and now serves more than 4,000 students in grades K-12.

“It was Day One at North Star Academy,” Tantillo began, outlining how students, teachers and administrators came into a community circle after lunch. “It was a discussion, it was not a lecture and at the end of this discussion about what it means to be caring and what it means to be a part of a community, kids signed a contract.”

Tantillo’s eyes filled with tears as she addressed the packed ballroom.

The “contract” translated into each individual student stepping up to a drum, then banging on it.

“These kids hit the drum and it kept going on,” she said. “Seventy-two students came over and hit the drum and it was incredibly moving to see these kids become part of this community. It was so intentional. I was so thankful to be there, to be in that moment.”

The inaugural Education Innovator of the Year Award was presented at the conference to Karen Thomas, CEO and co-founder of the Marion P. Thomas School District—the largest independently-operated free public charter school in Newark with a network of four campuses.

Thomas has spearheaded a number of charter initiatives, such as establishing the first charter pre-K program, the first gender-based program at a charter school and Newark's only culinary and performing arts-themed high school. 

Thomas was a member of the New Hope Baptist Church when then pastor, the late Rev. Charles E. Thomas, had a vision for a school in the Newark community.

Although she was a marketing director at ESSENCE Magazine, Thomas was ready to move forward with the charter vision.

“I am always up for a challenge and 20 years later, by working with some really talented educators and professionals who all committed their skills and talents, Marion P. Thomas Charter School is the largest minority-led community charter school in Newark,” Thomas said.

Thomas, who went on to earn her Master’s Degree in educational leadership and her Ed.D. in urban education, noted the school's beginnings through the church and their subsequent expansion, which came about as a result of a merger with Visions Academy Charter High School, an outgrowth of the St. James AME facility.

Thomas recalled the obscurity surrounding charter schools that once existed.

“In the early days of charter schools in New Jersey, no one outside the movement really knew what charters were,” Thomas said. “Each conversation about them took a great deal of explanation. Today, we have grown to a place where this has become common nomenclature, although often still misunderstood.” 

Thomas lauded several pioneers of Newark’s charter movement, citing a recent CREDO study out of Stanford University that named Newark the second- highest performing charter sector in the nation.

She also noted the first blue ribbon charters born in Newark, such as Gray Charter, Robert Treat Academy and North Star.  

“Uncommon Schools, a high-performing national network of schools, had its humble beginnings in the first cohort of New Jersey  charters with North Star Academy,” she said. “When I think about the early pioneers like Norman Atkins, Steve Adubato, Verna Gray and Irene Hall, I consider myself to be in an elite company of charter founders who paved the way.” 

Thomas noted the latitude given to charters, allowing them innovation and the ability to move away from cookie-cutter education.

“Programs, such as  gender-based education, which MPTCS is offering under the SELECT program, or our culinary and performing arts high school, or serving over -aged, under-credited students at LEAD charter school that opened this year in Newark, or other themed schools, proves that in education one size does not fit all,” she said. “Charters may succeed individually, but until all students in all public schools succeed we haven’t won the war.”

Thomas believes that charters have helped raise the bar and have broken the monopoly of “educational business as usual.”

“Charters have been successful as game changers on behalf of mostly black and brown scholars and families in urban districts across the country,” she said. “Our next challenge is to create systems that make space for both charter and traditional public schools to harmoniously co-exist. I think that Newark is poised to be that model. The collaborative work that NPS and Newark charters are doing through universal enrollment systems, best-practice sharing, co-location and facilities can indeed help other cities and districts to tear down the adversarial walls being built by those who do not have the best interest of parents and children in mind.”