Charter School Could Come to Maplewood

By mark-slade April 13, 2011

Charter School Could Come to Maplewood

The proposed Hua Mei Charter School would serve Maplewood, South Orange, Livingston, Union, West Orange and Millburn — and draw funding from those districts’ budgets.
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A charter school application has been submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education involving the South Orange-Maplewood School District.
The Hua Mei (pronounced hwah may and meaning Chinese American) Charter School would be a Mandarin-language immersion school serving South Orange/Maplewood, West Orange, Livingston, Union and Millburn school districts. As a charter school, Hua Mei would be supported by funding from those school districts — up to 90% of the costs of educating each individual child.
On its application, Hua Mei identifies the former St. Joseph’s School on Franklin Street in Maplewood as its “anticipated physical” location.
The proposed school was a hot topic of discussion at the Millburn Board of Education meeting earlier this week. Millburn Superintendent James Crisfield told the Board of Education at its meeting Monday night that he is planning an information session May 9 with other districts that could be affected by the charter schools.
“The way charter schools are funded could have a significant  impact on the district’s budget,” he said. “It could cost us a significant amount of money.”
[Millburn could be impacted by another Mandarin immersion charter school — Hanyu International Academy — which has been proposed for Millburn, Livingston and West Orange.]
Patch met with two of the fourteen founders of Hua Mei on Tuesday to discuss their proposal. Kim Curtis and Nancy Chu were anxious to counter claims that the charter school would deplete districts of funds. They wanted to voice their support for local public school districts, and explain their passion for language immersion education.
First, Curtis answered the charge that charter schools deplete regular public school district schools of funding. “If a family leaves the district, the money leaves with them. But if a child stays in the district and goes to a charter in district, the district still keeps part of the money.” Curtis also said that, although districts must pay a large portion of the cost for each child opting into the charter school, the district does get to keep a portion — albeit a small one — of that apportionment and also no longer needs to provide services for that child in district schools. She said this could help with overcrowding conditions and help decrease costs for the district.
Chu said that the charter school was purposely spread across five districts in order to lessen the burden on any one district. She noted that the first year budget for Hua Mei was $1,050,000 while the combined 2011-12 budgets for the five afffected districts was $511.3 million. This would mean that the Hua Mei budget would take an average of 1/5 of one percent of the budget for each district in its first year of operation in 2012-13.
Chu also noted that the five districts have a total of 28,995 students, while Hua Mei proposes 90 students for its first year of operation, for an average of 18 students per district. The school is proposed to start as K-2, but Curtis said the plan is to expand next to 5th grade and ultimately to 8th grade, something that could be accommodated at the St. Joe’s School building. By the fourth year of operation, the school projects serving K-5 and enrolling 210 students.
Curtis saw the use of that building as a boon to Maplewood and Springfield Avenue. “We’ll be doing community outreach, offering sessions for parents, heritage opportunities, community service and inviting the community into the school.”
Curtis said that she and Chu had already spoken with Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca and he was “very intrigued.” Said Curtis, “He saw many marketing opportunities for the town.” [DeLuca declined to comment for this article.]
Both women wanted to emphasize that they are not involved in the charter because they are unhappy with local school districts. “It’s just about language. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the public schools,” said Chu. Chu and Curtis, both of whom live in South Orange, say they chose to live in the community in part because of the South Orange-Maplewood School District. Chu opted to send her son to the public preschool at Jefferson, while Curtis’ children are enrolled in preschool and kindergarten at Bilingual Buds in Summit.
Chu said that the group has been proactive in reaching out to the five superintendents and six mayors (or presidents) of the towns affected. “On the day we delivered the application we made phone calls to every mayor and super and said we wanted to meet with them and give them everything they wanted and we would answer questions.” Meetings with 4 out of the 5 superintendents, including Brian Osborne of South Orange-Maplewood, have been scheduled.
Chu and Curtis discussed their reasons for championing a language immersion charter school. Said Curtis, “I want my children to be bilingual. The language doesn’t matter.” She felt that this could only happen under a model such as that proposed by Hua Mei which starts at 90-10 Mandarin to English instruction ratio in kindergarten and slowly evens out to 50-50 by 5th grade.
Curtis said her husband’s reasons were different. “Kids brains grow differently if they are learning a romance language AND a non-romance tonal and pictorial language [like Mandarin].”
Added Chu, “Stimulating the right and left brain helps in terms of learning music and art, making a well-rounded brain.” Chu cited supporting research. Chu is a fluent Mandarin speaker herself but feels her son, who is half Chinese, will not become fluent without immersion. “There’s very little opportunity to teach him Asian culture and language.” Plus, she said, language acquisition requires “practice on a daily basis and discourse.”
Both said that the argument that Mandarin could offer better job opportunities in the growing global economy featuring an emergent China was secondary.
What’s next?
The application was delivered to the NJ Department of Education and the districts on March 31.The districts have 60 days to submit comments to the DOE. The DOE is also reviewing the application for completeness. Curtis said that Hua Mei will know if they have the go-ahead by September this year, but applicants have until June 30 of the year in which the school is to open (in this case, June 30, 2012) to complete all requirements of the application, with final charter approval being given by July 15 next year. Final approval involves a site inspection and proof of 90% enrollment.
There are instances where local school boards have sued to stop the opening of a charter school (for instance, East Brunswick unsuccessfully sued to halt the opening of the Hatikvah International Charter School in 2010); however, they are rare and costly for districts that are already dealing with constrained funding. School district representatives have also petitioned the NJ Assembly to create a mechanism within charter school laws requiring a public vote to approve such schools.
Despite potential opposition, Curtis and Chu — who along with the other founders are raising money for the startup and devoting months of volunteer time — feel resolute that Hua Mei is a win-win for students and districts. While many charter schools are often created to give options to children in poorer districts, Curtis feels that Hua Mei will serve an unmet need in local towns. “A regular public school cannot provide this kind of language immersion,” she said. “Some can afford to send their kids to private language immersion schools. The charter is for those who cannot.”
Curtis also sees the charter as a selling point for the towns its serves. “I work as a realtor and the number one question I get is schools.”