Local schools expand to meet growing demand

New ‘Empowerment Academy’ to share space with BelovED Charter

Hoping to generate new ideas about education, a new charter school called Empowerment Academy will be sharing space with the BelovED Community Charter School on Grand Street in September.
BelovED, which opened in 2013, will provide room that will allow the new school to get off the ground.
“BelovED’s building is only partly occupied,” said Bret Schundler, the city’s former mayor, who is a consultant to both schools.
BelovED is currently adding grades to its existing building and is negotiating with the Jersey City Housing Authority for space to construct a middle school.
“But we still need to rent space to help pay the mortgage,” Schundler said.
Schundler, also a former Commissioner of the state Department of Education, is considered the father of the charter school movement. He became a strong supporter of the movement after becoming mayor in 1992, and is personally responsible for helping to open the Golden Door Charter School currently located on JFK Boulevard in Jersey City. He is also one of the people who pushed for legislation that would enable charter schools to develop throughout the state.
BelovED opened in 2013, and added an additional wing in 2014, but at the time needed to share space with Head Start because the new school could not yet sustain itself with only a few grades. Charter schools expand incrementally after applying to the state. BelovED started with grades kindergarten through third grade, added the fourth grade with the expansion, and soon expects to add a fifth grade. Schundler said the middle school is scheduled to open in September 2016.

Starting out small

Empowerment Academy, which is expected to open in September, will only be offering Kindergarten and first grade. But like BelovED, Empowerment Academy will add one grade level each year and grow into a K-12 school.
“Empowerment will end up in its own building eventually,” Schundler said. “But right now it cannot afford it and will rent from us.”
The new school will occupy the original portion of the building in one wing.
“Charter schools have to perform well or they have to close,” he said. “But even when they first open they are financially vulnerable.”
But the two schools will share space only for a short time.
“We’ve identified land for Empowerment in the Greenville section and can build an entire complex. They will eventually go to k – 12,” Schundler said.

“Both schools are trying to be innovative to have a positive impact.” — Bret Schundler.
This comes at a time when charter schools are asking for increased funding. Although considered public schools, charters generally receive about 50 percent of the revenue that goes to more conventional public schools. They can fundraise for more revenue.
Construction costs for charter schools generally aren’t even on the state’s radar when providing aid to school districts. Yet Jersey City is on the brink of a vast shortage in classroom space as the population expands. Schundler said a study done for the district showed that Jersey City could be short as many as 7,000 desks by 2017.
“The district can’t build schools fast enough to meet that need,” he said. “The state doesn’t look at individual needs. They set broad policies and may not provide funding needed to build new schools. What the state will give you may not be close to what the need is.”
Currently, Jersey City will have one new school on line in time for 2017, Schundler said.
“This means that charter schools will have to fill the need,” he said.
Charter schools are more flexible and can take up space in existing buildings. They are also free public schools that provide equal access to all students, regardless of intellectual or athletic ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, or status as a handicapped person, he said.

A different approach to education

Schundler said these two charter schools are geared around promoting character and values that students can carry with them into their lives and careers
“Like BelovED, Empowerment Academy will be engaging its scholars in service to others and the community from the earliest grade levels,” Schundler said. “BelovED has been hugely successful – both academically and in terms of parent and student satisfaction. Year-end assessment data shows that BelovED’s students made way-above-national average learning gains last year.”
Charter schools do provide the required core curriculum, but they often use different instruction parameters. Often they will try different methodologies.
BelovED and Empowerment will be working in tandem to see which systems work, trying programs to see how they best benefit students. Those that work best will become part of the curriculum, Schundler said.
Both schools have contracts with the school district, such as providing for the charter schools a child study team for students with special needs.

Recruitment needed

Empowerment Academy is currently recruiting students for September.
“We’ve been working on this since 2014,” he said. “We have the teaching staff hired and were working on assistants now.”
Recruiting is important because the new school needs to fill every seat. “Some parents apply to as many as five charter schools at a time,” he said. “So they might choose another school and not show up in the fall. This happened our first year.”
This aggressive recruiting is only necessary for the first year or two, he said, since most students return for the next year.
“We’re going out every day to meet with parents to talk about the new school,” Schundler said.
To apply for their child, parents just go online at www.empacad.org/enroll and fill out an online application. (Alternatively, they can call 201-630-4702.)

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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