At an emotional luncheon at the Brass Rail Restaurant Monday, the staff and supporters of the Hoboken Charter School paid tribute to three of the school's founders, who are moving on to jobs at other schools this coming year.
Stacey Gruber, Mark Silberberg, and Jill Singleton have been co-coordinators and teachers at the charter school since the beginning. The school opened its doors in 1997 after parents and professional educators wanted an alternative to Hoboken's public schools. The state had just passed legislation allowing groups of people to found "charter schools," which were still public schools.
Around that time, another charter school opened in Hoboken, the Elysian Charter School. Both schools are still around.
Mayor David Roberts, who at the time was a councilman who sponsored the city's first forum on charter schools, was at the luncheon last week to thank the trio for their contribution to Hoboken's educational tapestry. Also present were three resolutions from the state Senate sponsored by state Sen. Bernard Kenny, lauding the founders' dedication.
In the beginning
The trio were pivotal in the writing the school's charter application, and their fingerprints are all over the school's growth from its infancy to its adolescence.
"It's been such an amazing experience," said a teary-eyed Gruber at the luncheon Monday. "It's been hard and challenging, but it's also been incredibly wonderful and emotional."
The Hoboken Charter School (HCS) is a pre-K through 12 school with 270 students. It's a public school that is entirely funded by state and local taxpayer money. The difference between charter schools and other public schools is that charter schools do not report to city's Board of Education. The school has a board of trustees that handles curriculum and administration.
Gruber added Friday morning that she is leaving with a great deal of pride over what has been accomplished. "I'm confidant that there are student that had really positive experience because of this school we started," she said.
Teaching to serve
Singleton said that even with all of challenges and misconceptions that face charter schools, this experiment in education has had "resounding success."
One of the guiding tenets of the Hoboken Charter School is teaching social responsibility and activism. The catch phrase is "service-learning," a method whereby students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service that is conducted in and meets the needs of the community.
"I have really enjoyed seeing children and families participate in service events," said Singleton, who next year will be the head of the All Saints Episcopal Day School in Hoboken. "I think we have really earned the respect of the community and have found a home in Hoboken."
Each year, HCS hosts community-wide events such as the "March on Washington Street" in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and the "Empty Bowls Supper" to raise money for a local homeless shelter and to elevate awareness of global hunger.
"The [Charter School] has enabled kids to look up and see there is a world out there that they can have a powerful effect on," said Gruber.
So many misconceptions
The founders said that one of the biggest obstacles they faced was clearing up misconceptions about charter schools.
"A lot people have a perception of what a charter school is. and frequently the reality is just the opposite," said Singleton. "Overcoming these preconceived notions has been exceedingly difficult."
When parents decided to found charter schools in Hoboken in 1997, some public school parents called them "elitist" and were suspicious of them. Others think the charter school drains the smartest students from the public school district.
But HCS does not select its students according to academic performance. Every student in the system who wishes to enroll in the school can enter a lottery before the school year starts. Names are drawn at random, and students are selected with no preference given to any socioeconomic group or skill level.
The schools provide competition with the existing public schools but also can share resources and sometimes use their programs.
According to Singleton, this year, around 40 percent of the HCS students have special needs, which is actually a much higher ratio that the public school district.
Another of the school's big challenges has been funding. Charter schools only receive 90 percent of funding per-pupil as a regular district public school. The funding situation is greatly exacerbated because charter schools only get a fraction of state and federal grants.
On top of these limitations, the school does not get any funding for facilities and annually has to spend around 10 percent of its budget on rent. When everything is totaled up, according to school officials, the charter schools only have about 60 percent of the funding of their public school brethren.
"It's been hard to keep a professional culture when you can't offer the same salaries as other schools in the area," said Singleton. "There is a great deal of inequity."
She added that while teachers have been happy teaching at the charter school, the discrepancy in pay has created a great deal of teacher turnover every year.
In fact, funding was so tight in 2003 that the school's board of trustees came close to dissolving the upper school grades because of a one-year dip in enrollment. Only after major reorganization was the school able to pull itself out of a $250,000 budget deficit.
Singleton said serious reform is still needed on the state level when it comes to charter schools. Each year, she said, more bureaucratic requirements are seeping into the charter school.
"One of the original draws of the charter school system was that there was a certain amount of freedom from the bureaucratic system," said Singleton.
"It's a little bit sad to know that we're leaving," said Singleton, "because I loved this incredible experience." But she said it was never intended that the founders would stay on as co-coordinators forever.
The school has hired a full-time director to run it starting this coming year. As for Stacey Gruber and Mark Silberberg, Gruber will be Singleton's assistant director at All Saints, and Silberberg will be the principal of the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village.
"I hope we served as good role models," Singleton said, "and now we are ready to pass the torch off to the next crew."