This piece originally ran on NJ Spotlight.
A great deal was made of New Jersey Governer Chris Christie administration’s last round of charter school approvals, and the lack of any suburban charters on the list.
But the urban ones that were approved are interesting in themselves, including two in Trenton and Newark that are trying a new model of education, mixing online learning with face-to-face instruction in a setting unlike any other in the state.
Or at least that’s the pitch.
The person making the pitch is Ben Rayer, a self-described education “entrepreneur” out of Philadelphia who won approval to bring the new model to two of New Jersey’s toughest cities.
Newark Preparatory Charter School and Trenton Preparatory Charter School follow what some call part of the “hybrid” model of schooling that combines the online with more recognizable classroom approaches. Rayer said in an interview this weekend that it’s not all that radical.
‘We are trying to take the best of both worlds, and take the things that are out there today and are successful,” he said. “All we are doing is taking the effective practices that have been used, and applying today’s tools to make that work.”
Rayer is no newcomer to charters. He is the former president and chief operating officer of Mastery Charter Schools, the Philadelphia-based network that has largely won praise for its work in improving some of that city’s lowest-performing schools.
Rayer left Mastery, which mainly uses traditional classrooms and methods, in 2008 for a stint in the Philadelphia public schools. Despite his experience, his plans for Newark and Trenton will likely stir up some debate in New Jersey.
Online learning continues to be an unproven phenomenon in many critics’ eyes, and one most often connected with private, for-profit interests. The effectiveness of its teaching have already drawn questions in two other charter schools approved for next fall, which would be almost entirely online.
Rayer, founder of Touchstone Education, a charter management organization (CMO), does not hide that he hopes to take his model national. He has already drawn impressive sums from some big names in education reform.
One is the Charter School Growth Fund in Colorado, which is putting up more than $3.6 million for Rayer’s CMO. The fund is headed by Kevin Hall, former president of the Broad Foundation, a big force in education reform circles.
Rayer’s dual involvement with the CMO and as a founder of the schools drew some questions from New Jersey’s Office of Charter Schools’ staff in reviewing the application. The agency stressed in its initial review that the school must ultimately select a CMO through a public bidding process. An addendum said that such a process would be followed.
But it’s not just the technology that’s different. The school’s application said the model is based on personalized learning, with each child on a course of study customized to his or her level. They would just as commonly study in workstations, much like an office setting, Rayer said, where they work online and teachers would come to them as they need help.
The approach is detailed in the application:
- Online learning is used as the basis for developing basic skills and concepts in all curricular areas.
- Mini lessons are used to introduce new content and (state curriculum) standards for instructional units.
- Seminars provide personalized instruction and intervention and the application and synthesis of learning.
- Finally, demonstration allows for the evidence of standards mastery through problem solving, writing and presentations. Students work on different subjects at their own pace and advance through mastery of the subject matter as determined by daily informal assessments.
It would be a longer school day and school year, although Fridays would be a shorter schedule for students, as teachers use the time to go over data to plan and reflect on their lessons. The so-called Data Analysis Days (PDF) are a trademark of the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia.
Teachers would be divided into their own tracks as well, with master teachers, senior teachers and associate teachers. Rayer even asked in his application for a waiver from the state’s tenure laws, allowing him more freedom for hiring and firing teachers. The bid was turned down as something not allowed under New Jersey statute.
Another waiver request is still pending, he said, that would allow multiple schools under the same charter, even if not in adjoining communities. Although he received separate approvals for both Trenton and Newark, Rayer would prefer they be one charter, which would give him more flexibility to add schools.
There is some uncertainty about the Trenton campus, at least for next fall, he said. If it opens, the application says it would be located off Jersey Street in Trenton, amid a complex of state and county offices and warehouses.
The Newark opening next fall is more certain, Rayer said, with a location still to be finalized but expected to be in the downtown area of the city. He said the national headlines of the Newark’s school reform efforts drew him to the city, including the $100 million Facebook gift and Gov. Chris Christie’s appointment of a new superintendent, Cami Anderson.
“The excitement around reform is very interesting to us,” he said. “We want to be in a place that wants to see change.”
And Rayer said the money helped, too, with considerable foundation support in the city right now.
“This will allow us to experiment to see what the real model would look like,” he said. “What has been proposed is something that really hasn’t been done elsewhere.”