“It is our expectation that all students will achieve – no exceptions, no excuses.”
The signs, newly installed this year, hang over the blackboard of every classroom in the gleaming Golden Door Charter School on Ninth Street Downtown.
Founded in 1998 by charter school champion Mayor Bret Schundler, the 500-student K-7 school almost immediately earned the tag “troubled.” Plagued by low test scores, teacher and administrative strife, and recent state probation stemming from the school’s financial practices, the Golden Door has limped into its third year.
But Schundler and school officials argue that time is needed to iron out the kinks, that many of the students who came to Golden Door were low performers in the public system, and that bad teachers need to be “culled out” so that the school is left with “superstars.”
They may be right. The probation has been lifted, and now, armed with 10 new teachers, the school is looking to expand next year to include an eighth grade. Head of School (she prefers not to be called principal) Karen Jones has created a fifth and sixth grade honors class, and wants to add two more kindergarten classes. She says she gets requests each day from parents eager to enroll their children in the school.
A Golden Door class
Senate hopeful Bob Franks (R-7th Dist.), toured classes in the school this past week.
“Here’s Bret Schundler,” said Franks, introducing the mayor to a class. “He’s pretty famous.”
Said a student, “I saw him on TV.”
“Well, you saw me here, too,” said Schundler.
“Yeah, last year,” the student responded.
In a fifth grade classroom, teacher Anthony Dilley prowls the floor and reads from a book.
“Can anyone tell me the name of the jewels that are red?” He snaps his fingers.
“Rubies!” shouts the class.
Can anyone tell me the name of the jewels that are green?” (SNAP!)
Can anyone tell me the name of the jewels that are clear?” (SNAP!)
This is the teaching method of Advantage, the Boston-based company that contracts with the charter school. The state placed Golden Door on probation in March for running a budget deficit of $426,00 for last year’s $5 million worth of expenditures, according to preliminary state figures. Advantage made up the shortfall in the fledgling school’s budget deficit through a “donation.” The school had also run a deficit in the year previous, about $727,000. The state says that the discrepancy came from how the school interpreted a state statute. Schundler argued the charter school should not be “bureaucratically restrained” by the state regulations that govern other public schools, but Golden Door acquiesced in order to retain its charter.
“The only issue the state has ever had with us was purely financial,” said Jones. “They knew it is was nothing to do with how we do school.”
But how Golden Door has done in other areas has come into question. Low test scores and teacher turnover has raised eyebrows across the city.
“I think, frankly, we went through some problems,” said Schundler. “Golden Door is filled with children who are very low-income, mostly from single families, most all who were doing very poorly before they came to Golden Door. That’s why their parents moved them.”
Test scores from the 1999 ESPA (Elementary School Proficiency Assessment), a test all fourth graders take, showed student proficiency levels in math of 6.2 percent. In language arts and literacy, the proficiency level was only 15 percent. Science was higher, at 62.9 percent.
This year scores were higher at the school for math, up to 12.5 percent. But science fell to 48.6 percent and language and reading also dipped. Jones, however, declined to release exact reading statistics. The state is currently reviewing the scores of the test for all of New Jersey.
The scores are not where Jones wants them, but she points to improvements in the Stanford Achievement Test, administered twice by the school last year. Still, while there have been improvements, only six of the 13 classes in the school were at or above grade-level proficiency.
All students will now take part in a three-day-a-week after-school ESPA preparatory class, according to Jones. The classes will start Oct. 3 and will run until the test is administered in the spring.
While many of the children at the school were not learning at grade level, said Schundler, teachers were also a problem.
“Now we go and we interview teachers,” he said, “and we look at their resumes, and we determine who really looks like a great teacher. Then you put them in a classroom, and what happens is some are truly great teachers, and some end up lowering the expectations for the children, because of, let’s say, the economically disadvantaged circumstances the children are coming from.”
Jones hopes the new teachers and staff she’s brought in are willing to stay late, work hard and be imbued with a sense of mission.
“I take this job so seriously and so personally,” she said. “I’ve sacrificed a lot.”
A veteran of the Chicago public school system, Jones came from Arizona during the first month of Golden Door.
“The administration didn’t believe what the mayor believed in,” she said.
And so Jones has made changes.
She wants to get parents more involved, she’s instituted a “continuum of consequence” punishment system, to alleviate the revolving door of problem children, and she’s installed a new program coordinator, a person who works closely with the teachers on curriculum.
As the day ends, Jones is late for a staff meeting. But as she strides through the office, she notices a student and gives him a hug. And then she’s off to meet with the staff.