The CEO of a North Jersey charter school chain is vowing to search for local teachers and offer competitive salaries for a new charter school in the Bronx.
Under the leadership of Nihat Guvercin, whose charter chains have stirred controversy with personnel moves in Texas and New Jersey, the North Jersey Arts and Science Charter school system is planning to expand into New York City.
Currently serving Bergen and Passaic counties with its six New Jersey locations, NJASCS will learn from the State University of New York by May if it can establish a proposed 200-student, K-4 elementary school with hopes of expanding to eight grades and 460 students by its fifth year of operation.
The proposed location is the former Our Lady of Mercy school building on 2496 Marion Avenue, bordering the Bronx’s 5th and 6th school districts.
Roots in NJ, Texas and Turkey
The ASCS chain began in Garfield, in Bergen County, with a K-5 program in 2007 that expanded to K-8 two years later. The chain now has branches in Clifton, Hackensack. Paterson and Passaic, where there are two ASCS schools. According to the Charter’s website, the schools operate under a cost-sharing agreement and all are accountable to the New Jersey Department of Education individually.
Charter schools are, of course, nothing new to the Bronx. There are currently 48 charters spread mostly through the southern part of the borough. But ASCS claims it differs from the current offerings because of its heavy emphasis on science- and arts-based programs and classes, including robotics, science Olympiads, theater and visual arts. The educational model also relies on 21st century technology by offering SMART boards and iPads for teachers and students.
Guvercin is a former physics teacher from Turkey, and most of the trustees for the Arts and Science Charter School system (which operates the facilities in Garfield, Hackensack and Clifton) are Turks. Bergen in particular offers Turkish language classes to grades 4-7, organizes summer trips to the country and has held Turkish family dinners for parents and students.
Before coming to New Jersey, Guvercin worked in Texas at the Harmony Charter School system under the parent organization Cosmos, which was behind 100 charters linked to cleric Fetullah Gulen, an influential Turkish opinion leader living in Pennsylvania. Gulen is a moderate Islamic preacher who plays a key role in Turkish politics. As a 2011 New York Times report put it, Gulen’s connection to the schools spurred “a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia.”
One concern was the arrival of Turkish teachers taking jobs with special “H-1B” visas, which are typically granted to highly skilled foreigners who supply a service unmatched by American teachers. Critics said the Cosmos chain’s American worker recruitment was not aggressive and that many of the Turkish teachers are not specially trained. What they were was cheap: In 2010 statistics from the National Education Policy Center, the Harmony charter chain’s starting base pay hovered around $35,000 while other Houston public school’s starting wages were closer to $45,000.
Success and struggles in test scores
During the 2012-2013 school year, the Bergen Arts and Science Charter’s median classroom salary average was $44,700. The median salary for New Jersey public schoolteachers, according to NJDOE, is just above $62,000. Currently, however, out of 250 employees at the North Jersey schools, only three are H-1B visa workers, according to Guvercin, who also says his schools are not affiliated with Gulen.
“We check the public schools in the area and go with average school salary,” Guvercin says. “We aren’t funded like public schools are funded. We’re getting less funds from the state so we can’t compete with the regular salary scheme of public schools, but I can say that it’s average.”
New Jersey funds schools by a per-pupil fee. During the 2012-2013 school-year all New Jersey public schools budgeted an average $14,506 per student, while charters budgeted $13,238. New York City has a similar per-pupil fee system.
Guvercin says his schools have had positive relations with all stakeholders and schools in the area, which have not had any issues. “Their success is our success,” he says.
ASCS schools post mixed scores on New Jersey tests. In the three Bergen County Schools, grades in both English and Math on average have hovered around the 80th percentile of proficiency, 10 percent higher than the statewide average. The two Passaic Art and Science charters have had less success, falling on average 10 percent below New Jersey’s proficiency rate in English, with math scores only slightly above the state average. Scores for the Paterson school were unavailable, as it is still in its first year.
Tahir Azirov, the operations manager of the six North Jersey schools, is one of the founders of the proposed Bronx Arts and Sciences charter. A native of the Bronx’s Belmont community, and currently living near Pelham Parkway, Azirov initially pitched the idea to Guvercin, wanting to bring their successful model to New York City and specifically to his home community. He has a masters in education and is hoping to eventually be principal pending the charter’s approval.
Tough times for charters?
ASCS’s bid to locate in the Bronx comes amid intense debate over the future of charter schools in New York City, since Mayor Bill de Blasio has been an aggressive critic of what he saw as undue favoritism granted to charters under Mayor Bloomberg. De Blasio has been especially critical of charter schools co-locating with other public schools. But this wouldn’t directly affect the proposed ASCS school, since it would move into a former Catholic school building.
“We are mindful that the mayor made some comments about his lack of favoritism for charter schools,” says Azirov. “But at the end of the day, he’s not the final decision maker on the application. We respect his opinion. We wish he would offer his support just because we see it as a different choice.”
“We know the board of education is looking for schools that have already been established, and we have been for seven years. So I think it will work in our favor,” he says.
If the school’s application qualifies in May, SUNY will make a recommendation to the state board of education, and if they approve of the plan they will confirm the charter in September. In the meantime, Azirov has been collecting signatures from neighborhood residents at community board meetings and from local business owners, in an effort to prove the Belmont area’s desire for a new school. He has claimed that there is positive feedback from many families he’s spoken with, many of whose children are on the city’s waiting list for charter schools. He is also promoting the school’s Facebook page, although it currently only has 10 “likes.”
As for expanding the charter into more of New York City, Guvercin is optimistic, but is still focused on establishing a school in the Bronx.
“We’ll see of course how well we do there, but we do believe we have a right model, successful model, which will definitely bring quality education to the Bronx,” he said. “Depending on the success of this school, why not expand this model to other cities as well?”