By Kevin Coughlin
The state has rejected controversial expansion plans by the Unity Charter School in Morris Township, citing low test scores.
About 150 people had signed a petition opposing the expansion, contending the K-8 school cherry-picks students from outside the Morris School District–which supplies about $1.3 million of its budget–and amounts to a private school funded with public tax dollars.
That petition contains “misstatements,” according to Unity’s executive director, who pledged on Tuesday to keep working on strengthening the curriculum.
“A school’s academic performance is a critical factor in all high-stakes decision making including a request to expand a school’s enrollment,” state education Commissioner David Hespe said Monday in a letter to the school.
“A review of Unity Charter School’s academic performance on the PARCC exam in 2014-15 demonstrates that the school’s academic results were unsatisfactory relative to its top two sending districts, Morris and Parsippany-Troy Hills,” he said.
Forty-two percent of Unity students in grades 3-5 achieved proficiency in math, compared with 47 percent in Morris and 65 percent in Parsippany, Hespe said.
In grades 6-8, only 34 percent of Unity students demonstrated math proficiency, which was 15 percentage points below Morris and 25 points below Parsippany.
Unity had sought permission to add an 8,000-square-foot wing and increase enrollment from 200 to 295 pupils, but was among 10 charter schools statewide to be denied expansion privileges. Sixteen other expansion requests were granted, and three new charter schools were approved.
“We are disappointed that the state did not approve our expansion,” Unity said in a statement from its executive director, Connie Sanchez.
“Our goal as a school is to offer every one of our students a high-quality education in an intimate learning environment. We will continue to focus on building a strong curricular program that allows all students to succeed… Our focus is on our students and their success. ”
Unity’s future plans must await a discussion of the state decision with the school community, Sanchez said.
The school has addressed petitioners’ “misstatements” with the commissioner, Sanchez said, without elaborating.
“We look forward to meeting with the state next year as part of our renewal,” she said, referring to the five-year renewal of its charter.
Leonard Posey, president of the Morris School District board, declined to comment until the board has a chance to discuss the decision.
A parent-driven organization called Morris Cares About Schools said it was pleased with the commissioner’s action.
“We opposed the expansion because Unity Charter School’s significant out of district enrollment skewed demographic factors. This made academic comparison to diverse Morris School District extremely unfair, and was also unfair to the 40-plus sending districts who have no legal standing in this process,” the organization said in a statement.
This was Unity’s third expansion request in five years. Charter schools in New Jersey are supposed to draw the majority of their students from the district they are approved to serve. But only about one-third of Unity’s pupils hail from the Morris School District; the rest come from 47 other districts spread across eight counties, according to the petition.
Those sending districts pay tuition to the Morris District, but have no legal say in expansion matters, or any academic comparisons to Unity, opponents noted.
The petition also accused Unity of creating a “segregated student population” by taking far fewer low-income-, minority- and Special Education children, and no “Limited English Proficient” students.
“This makes all comparisons between the performance of Unity and Morris School District invalid,” the opponents said.
Paradoxically, Unity’s math scores still lagged those of the Morris District, which serves Morristown, Morris Township and (high school only) Morris Plains.
The state’s evaluation included a review of the school’s “academic, operational, and fiscal standing as well as an analysis of public comments, [and] fiscal impact on sending districts,” Hespe said in his letter to Unity.
Unity Charter School was established in 1998, with emphasis on sustainability. The school features a compost garden, organic lunches, and filtered water fountains that also spout water conservation statistics.
Students are grouped with older or younger classmates, based on performance, and mentoring is encouraged. Electives have ranged from “Greenland Kayak Making” to criminology and songwriting. The school has “sustainability showcases” instead of science fairs.
In a presentation last year, Unity said it was devising a five-year plan to raise academic standards while keeping a “nurturing school environment that maintains the culture and climate of Unity and develops the whole child into a socially minded, articulate and thoughtful adolescent.”
Unity moved in 2010 from cramped quarters on Morristown’s Speedwell Avenue to a spacious leased building on Evergreen Place. An outdoor playing field and natural outdoor classroom space recently were completed.
The proposed expansion aimed to reduce class sizes by creating a middle school wing with eight new classrooms.
Unity weathered large-scale personnel changes in 2014, when two administrators and three of its 10 core teachers left.
Sanchez was hired last year from the Elizabeth public schools, where she taught middle school science and chaired gifted-and-talented programs. A former vice president at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and an Air Force reservist, Sanchez holds masters degrees from Columbia and Drew universities.