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Letter to NJ Commissioner Harrington

Letter to NJ Commissioner Harrington

March 13, 2017

March 10, 2017

Kimberly Harrington
Acting Commissioner
New Jersey Department of Education
100 River View Plaza
P.O. Box 500
Trenton, NJ 08625

Dear Commissioner Harrington:

As Merit Preparatory Charter School’s founding board president, I am writing on behalf of the board, our Charter Management Organization Matchbook Learning, Merit’s staff and administration, and our hundreds of parents and students who are devastated by the State’s intention to close Merit Prep at the end of this school year. We are shocked by both the revocation itself and the way in which the revocation was released publicly with no advance notice.

Here are some questions we would like to discuss with you in the hope that we can persuade you to reconsider Merit’s revocation status.

Contradicting the State’s five-year renewal of Merit’s charter. Based on positive data trends and turnaround in 2016 the State issued Merit Prep a five-year renewal of its charter. Merit even expanded the scope of its charter – at the State's prompting – continuing to grow our high school while expanding down to 5th grade (which has involved a substantial amount of time and resources to provide space for this expansion).

Questions: Why give us a five-year renewal last year only to close us the following year? And why encourage Merit to expand to 5th grade only to close us before the State can see how those 5th graders perform on this year’s PARCC?  

Inability to assess this year’s PARCC. When the state renewed Merit’s charter they told us our probationary status would remain so that the State could see a proper PARCC trend line that affirmed the school's turnaround trajectory by the some time during the Spring/Summer of 2017.

Questions: It is mid-March. Why is the State going back on its word? And why would the State announce Merit’s proposed closure less than three weeks before PARCC is to be administered? Did the State consider that the timing of this would have an overwhelmingly negative effect on morale leading up to the exams?

The State has not conducted the promised follow-up site visits. Less than three months ago I, along with Merit’s Principal Ron Harvey, and Matchbook Learning’s CEO Sajan George visited with Katherine Czehut and Julie Bount of the NJ DOE Charter Renewal Office. During that meeting, we were told to expect two visits from the DOE in either January or February 2017. One visit would be unannounced and another visit announced. The DOE staff told us that at the conclusion of those site visits, the department would consider removing Merit Prep's probationary status. If the probationary status were not lifted prior to the PARCC 2017 assessment results, the DOE representatives told us our status would be considered after PARCC’s results were released.  

Questions: Why were these visits never performed? In addition to no visits why, in the face of the State’s faith in granting Merit a five-year renewal, didn’t the State consider its current decision after PARCC as promised?

Merit Prep’s Board and Matchbook Learning have been proactive and responsive to the State. Matchbook Learning, the Charter Management Organization, takes over troubled schools and improves them.  Matchbook Learning did not start from scratch at Merit Prep – the Board brought them in to take over the school from the previous and founding Charter Management Organization, Touchstone Education, six weeks before the opening of school in the fall of 2014 and just prior to the State placing the school on academic probation based on our first two years.  With the full support our original founding Board, the school was stabilized and by the second year (2015-16), we had replaced 100% of the school leadership and 100% of the staff and fully implemented a new technology platform (Spark) and a competency-based learning model. We routinely accept students who on average are two to three years behind grade level when they arrive at Merit Prep according to national benchmark assessments (Scantron’s Performance Series) that we administer to every incoming student. The State explicitly approved this transfer from Touchstone to Matchbook.

Question: We immediately implemented the remedial efforts outlined by the State. How can the State evaluate our efforts in absence of a visit, meeting, or chance to share updates and data?

Merit’s model is innovative and innovation takes time. Our experience, which we have shared with visitors from your department, shows that students new to our competency based model at Merit Prep can take up to a year to adjust to this level of personalization.  Once students are with us for more than a year, their academic gains begin to accelerate.  Returning students outgrew new students on PARCC 2x as fast in Math and 4x as fast in ELA, with our ELA double-digit growth school wide being one of the highest in the city.  Last year we had over 50% of our students were new (210 of 369).  Those students are now in their second year with us and should perform at a similar advanced rate. This one-year lag phenomenon would continue until we complete growing our high school in two years.  

Question: Why hasn’t the State evaluated Merit on all of the objectives laid out by New Jersey’s Charter School Law? Merit is meeting the six objectives outlined in New Jersey’s Charter School law: improve student learning and achievement; increase the availability of choice to parents and students when selecting a learning environment; encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods; establish a new system of accountability for schools; make the school the unit for educational improvement; and establish new professional opportunities for teachers.

Lack of consideration for Merit’s students, staff, and families. The revocation letter was released publicly before the State officially gave notice to anyone at Merit. The first we heard was a call from a reporter to Principal Ron Harvey immediately followed by calls from bewildered parents. Mr. Harvey has fielded more than 100 calls from concerned parents asking why close Merit, why recruit 5th graders and then close the school in the same year, and why aren’t Merit students being given the chance to show how much progress they’ve made with 2017 PARCC?

Questions: Why is the State not adhering to its Accountability Statement that claims when the NJDOE makes a decision to revoke a school’s charter that “…the top priority is ensuring that students are not disrupted by this closure. The NJDOE works with local public schools, both district and charter, to find a school that meets the needs of each individual student”? How do we explain to our students, parents, and staff that the DOE inflicted worry and anxiety with no fair warning, no follow-up visits, and no respect for how this would affect the students taking PARCC later this month?  

Our students and families are devastated, have urged us to contest your decision and are eager to participate in any effort to keep Merit Prep open.  We have over 250 students currently attending other Newark middle and high schools that have selected us as one of their top four choices through Newark Enrolls. This is a remarkable turnaround in the school’s reputation in a mere two years.  When our board engaged Matchbook Learning it was because previous performance had been inadequate.  That has changed and our students and families know it.  

This decision affects not only the community of Newark but the future of nationally supported turnaround efforts and competency-based models in New Jersey.  National funders, board members and stakeholders chose Merit Prep and Newark as a powerful opportunity to demonstrate the power of personalizing learning via technology with students who are multiple years behind grade level when they arrive in Newark.  No national entity would ever close down something they’d started, something that had shown this much promise, after only a two-year trial. They are not going to understand this decision and I’m afraid it will reflect poorly on the education system in New Jersey.

For all these reasons, the entire Merit Prep family implores you to reconsider Merit’s charter revocation decision.  

Come visit our school and tour our classrooms. Talk with our students and staff.  Make a first-hand decision as to whether we truly deserve to be closed.  At the very least, defer your decision until after the PARCC.  Give our students a small ray of hope.  Give them a chance to demonstrate what they are capable of.  We would love to give them the opportunity to challenge this decision through their own performance - something we all agree is important, regardless of the final decision.  

Thank you for your consideration.

Michael Cosack
Board Chair, Merit Preparatory Charter School


Read the Voices of Merit (PDF)