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Princeton Charter School

Photo courtesy Princeton Charter via Wikimedia CC 3.0

On Feb. 16, the Latino Coalition of New Jersey (LCNJ) filed a complaint against the Princeton Charter School (PCS) with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In a press release that explains the filed complaint, the LCNJ urged these two departments “to investigate segregation at the Princeton Charter School and to review state policies that permit charter schools to serves as ‘enclaves of segregation.’” According to the LCNJ, communities that have become “enclaves of segregation” include Princeton, Franklin Township [Somerset], Red Bank, and Morristown.

Attached to LCNJ’s complaint was LCNJ Director Frank Argote-Freyre’s sixth letter to the New Jersey Acting Commissioner of Education, Kimberley Harrington. In the letter, Argote-Freyre expressed his disappointment in PCS.

“This school has fostered a segregated learning environment in Princeton with regards to race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, English language proficiency, and students with special needs,” Argote-Freyre wrote.

Argote-Freyre went on to urge Acting Commissioner Kimberley Harrington to deny PCS’s application to expand because the school has not “provided a viable means of addressing their persistent segregation.”

The complaint explains that Princeton Charter School will employ a weighted lottery system in its admissions process under the new plan. However, Argote-Freyre argues that it is entirely ineffective in accomplishing its intended effect of increasing diversity. He also claims that “an identical lottery implemented last year by the HoLA Charter School of Hoboken led to a decrease in the number and percent of low income students at [that] school.”

Paul Josephson, President of the PCS Board of Trustees, vehemently denied a number of these claims as being factually incorrect.

He said that under the current open lottery system, “everyone’s chances are equal. Our requirement is to seek to enroll a cross section of the community and for the last twenty years we have done that.”

Josephson then explained that despite its ethnic diversity, PCS “recognizes that [they’re] not serving as many of the socioeconomically disadvantaged families as is part of [their] mission and our goal.”

Josephson explained the weighted lottery system that PCS plans to begin using.

“The state authorized the use of weighted lottery on behalf of all charter schools,” he said, “and we’re seeking to implement that as soon as we possibly can.”

In the first year of conducting the weighted lottery, both the HoLA Charter School of Hoboken and the Red Bank Charter School “found a significant increase in the number of applicants of a socioeconomically disadvantaged background seeking entry into the school,” Josephson said.

Josephson explained that the state’s decision was granted just before the lottery was set to take place. He said that outreach last year was not the same as it is this year and that these schools have notified PCS of a marked increase in interest.

“We have to expect a similar effect here,” he added.

“It is very easy to understand that weighting the lottery in the way we propose is certainly not going to hurt matters,” Josephson said. “I simply don’t understand the opposition of people who come to somebody who is saying ‘I want to give an advantage to a particular group of students and families deserving of that advantage’ and say we shouldn’t do it because we know it won’t be effective. What would they have us do? Nothing. That’s just wrong.”

“The Princeton Charter School has proposed no strategy for increasing the percentage of Limited English Proficient or special needs students at the school,” Argote-Freyre wrote to acting Commissioner Harrington in his letter.

Deputy Director of LCNJ Lazaro Cardenas agrees.

“Nothing really has been done to alleviate the segregation,” Cardenas said. “The numbers don’t reflect an effort to remedy that.”

“Efforts on their part should be targeting the population,” Cardenas explained. “Expansion will magnify the segregation that exists today.”

Josephson rebuts these claims by explaining PCS’s attempts to recruit students of different backgrounds.

“We would like to have access to the district’s pre-kindergarten program, to talk with those families. The district will not allow us into those classrooms or to communicate with those families,” Josephson said, adding that their only option is “blanketed mass mailings.”

Head of PCS Lawrence Patton also responded to this complaint.

“Unfortunately, this is exactly the same baseless complaint this same organization has filed against other charter schools in Monmouth and Middlesex counties in recent weeks,” he wrote.

“The pattern is obvious — the organization identifies a high-performing charter school with a pending expansion request with the New Jersey Department of Education and in the days before a decision is rendered, puts out a press release alleging civil rights violations,” wrote Patton in a statement. “This tactic is clearly designed to improperly influence the Department’s decision on the school’s expansion request while defaming the school and its families in the process.”

The complaint comes soon after a lawsuit filed by the Princeton Public Schools. The lawsuit claims that PCS violated New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Act, better known as “The Sunshine Law,” when the school’s Board of Trustees voted to amend its charter and increase its enrollment capacity without opening the meeting to the public.

“In 1999, the Princeton Charter School had almost the same percentage of Latino students as were enrolled at Princeton Public Schools,” the compliant stated. “As of the 2015-16 academic year, however, only 3 percent of the Princeton Charter School’s students are Latino versus 13 percent of the school district’s enrollment.”

“From 2007-08 until the current academic year, the Princeton School District has educated nearly 1,400 Limited English Proficient students while the Princeton Charter School has educated only one Limited English Proficient student,” according to the complaint.

The LCNJ also claims in their complaint that PCS educates fewer students from low-income backgrounds.

Only one percent of the charter school students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, according to the LCNJ complaint. This, to the LCNJ, is an example of the school’s lack of diversity.

Josephson responded by pointing to his prior comments, adding that the LCNJ is not credible.

“This group has absolutely no history in education matters until six months ago when it became active in Red Bank,” Josephson said. “Suddenly, in the last few months, this organization has filed five complaints with the Department of Education.”

“It’s particularly ridiculous that [the LCNJ] has chosen to pick on a group such as this considering it is a dual immersion school,” Josephson said, referring to the HoLA Charter School of Hoboken. “What is the dual language you may ask? Spanish. You could not ask for a better example of a school that is promoting the principles of diversity and inclusion.”

“I call that a coordinated campaign,” he added. “I’m a first Amendment lawyer and everyone in this society has a license to speak. The real question is credibility and this group has no credibility.”

“[LCNJ has] filed federal charges alleging that they know what is going on in these schools based on nothing other than press reports,” said Josephson. “I don’t know who is behind this campaign but I can tell you that I do intend to find out.”

By the end of his letter to Acting Commissioner Harrington, Argote-Freyre made one other request of her, calling on her “to close the Princeton Charter School because of a pattern of segregation spanning a decade.” He ended his letter by announcing once again that he is very much open to meeting with Harrington and discussing these matters further.

Josephson responded that it will be “a sad day for the community for families not to have an option like [PCS].” He also said a rejection of PCS’s application to expand would be quite detrimental by preventing the school from continuing to better its academic programs and increase diversity.

According to the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), if the OCR determines they have jurisdiction to investigate the claim, they will contact LCNJ and “the agency that is the subject of complaint will begin an investigation.” The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has a similar process.

As for the petition to expand, PCS is awaiting the acting commissioner's decision.

PCS states on its website that its mission is “to provide its diverse student body the best possible education by focusing on the fundamental academic disciplines in an atmosphere that affirms academic achievement and that develops strong character.” The decisions to come may test this mission statement.

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