Alleging discriminatory admissions practices and poor academic performance, the Latino Coalition of New Jersey is asking state and federal officials to close the Unity Charter School in Morris Township.
The nonprofit coalition, working with parents from a group called Morris Cares About Schools, has urged the state education commissioner not to renew the K-8 school’s charter.
Additionally, it has filed civil rights complaints against Unity with the federal departments of Justice and Education, said coalition Director Frank Argote-Freyre.
“Charter schools like Unity are creating enclaves of segregation,” Freyre said on Friday. The Princeton– , Red Bank– , Central Jersey College Prep – and Thomas Edison Energysmart charter schools also are facing complaints from the Monmouth County-based coalition.
“There is nothing unifying about the Unity Charter School.”
— The Latino Coalition of New Jersey
Unity has failed a legal obligation to reflect the demographics of its home district, the Morris School District, the coalition charges in a letter to state Acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington. The Morris district was praised as a model of diversity by a recent foundation study and a New York Times report.
Unity Executive Director Connie Sanchez said the school is not under any state investigation, nor has she received notice of any civil rights complaints.
If any probes are launched, she added, “I am completely confident they will find any allegations against the school are completely false.” Sanchez said she takes “great pride in our applications, lottery, admissions and enrollment practices.”
According to the Latino Coalition, in the 2014-15 school year:
- Latino students comprised only 8 percent of Unity’s enrollment, compared with 35 percent for the Morris district, a trend stretching back at least five years.
- Unity had no students classified as English Language Learners; 12 percent of Morris District students were ELL.
- Only 7 percent of Unity students qualified for free and reduced lunches (an indicator of economic need); about one-third Morris District students qualified for the program.
Members of Morris Cares About Schools have accused Unity of “cherry picking” students, claiming that only one-third of them hail from the Morris district. The rest of the 200-student enrollment comes from about 40 districts spread across eight counties .
“It is an unfortunate irony that a thriving school district that is held as a model of school integration to the nation, has to support one of the most segregated charter schools in New Jersey. There is nothing unifying about the Unity Charter School,” the letter contends.
“We pride ourselves on our inclusive nature…”
— Connie Sanchez, executive director, Unity Charter School
The coalition also reprised academic concerns raised last year by then-state Commissioner David Hespe, who cited 2014-15 PARCC exam scores in rejecting a $1.3 million expansion request by Unity. Those test results were “unsatisfactory relative to its top two sending districts, Morris and Parsippany-Troy Hills,” Hespe said at the time.
- In 2014-15: 42 percent of Unity students in grades 3-5 achieved proficiency in math, compared with 47 percent in the Morris district and 65 percent in Parsippany-Troy Hills.
- In grades 6-8, only 34 percent of Unity students demonstrated math proficiency compared to 49 percent in the Morris district and 59 percent in Parsippany-Troy Hills.
- For 2015-16, 60 percent of the grade 3-5 students in the Morris district and 67 percent in Parsippany-Troy Hills “Met or Exceeded” expectations on the ELA portion of the PARCC exam, compared to only 58 percent of Unity pupils.
“There is no reason to continue to allow a charter school to operate that does not give choice to ALL parents and does not academically outperform the local school district,” the coalition said in its letter to Harrington.
Spokespersons for the state education department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment. A request for comment from the state Department of Education was not immediately returned.
Unity was established in 1998, to emphasize sustainability values for students.
“Our unique mission—not exclusively geography—attracts most of the applicants to Unity. We are supportive of our diverse community,” Sanchez, who was hired in 2015, said in a statement to MorristownGreen.com.
“In fact, as the Executive Director, I pride myself on being an active member of the Hispanic community. All our marketing materials and our application are available in Spanish. I offer tours and speak with families and community members in Spanish and Portuguese,” she said.
Test scores are improving, continued Sanchez, citing a “constructivist approach” by teachers “who work tirelessly to support all our children each and every day.
“As an innovative organization we pride ourselves on our inclusive nature, we welcome the opportunity to serve members of all communities,” she said.
Unity trustees also are unaware of any civil rights complaints or investigations, said their president, Robert Ghelli.
Visitors to the school will find “amazing things happening every day. Unity is truly an asset to the community,” Ghelli said via email.