By Ron Leir
The tenant occupying the former Holy Cross School on Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. has reupped for another year.
And so, the more than 400 youngsters who’ve been coming to that location from Newark for the past year will continue to do so starting in September.
The Holy Cross School is where Lady Liberty Academy Charter School has been holding its classes ever since it was displaced from its original site on Pennsylvania Avenue near Lincoln Park in Newark where it lost its lease.
Lady Liberty had hoped to be back in its home district in time for this fall term but its new space isn’t ready yet, according to Lady Liberty Executive Director Glen Pinder.
Back in 2011, Pinder said, “We were supposed to colocate at the Dayton St. School (in Newark) but they didn’t want to share their building with us and the state Department of Education (DOE) gave us a waiver to come to Harrison.”
Since then, Pinder said that Lady Liberty – one of 18 charter schools funded by Newark’s Public School District – had planned to move to a different Newark site “but that didn’t work out.” It has a $7.8 million budget that supports 81 staff members.
Now, Pinder said, Lady Liberty has negotiated a “master lease” for a building in Newark’s Vailsburg section. “It will actually be an add-on to an existing building that is now under construction.” He declined to give the location.
In the meantime, he said Lady Liberty “got an extension to our fi rst waiver from the (DOE) to stay in Harrison an additional year (2012-2013).”
“We like it here,” Pinder said, “but we can’t stay (indefinitely).”
But stay they will for now and Pinter expects the school will continue to get wonderful cooperation from the town. “They let us use their (soccer) field, the local businesses have been good to us and the town has helped us with our fundraising,” he said.
The only downside – for some families – is the inconvenience of getting to and from Holy Cross School – a distance of about 2.5 miles from Lady Liberty’s former base in Newark. To help those families who can’t transport their children, Lady Liberty has arranged for a caravan of yellow school buses to handle that task. Unfortunately, that means a lot of kids can’t participate in afterschool activities, Pinder acknowledged.
Enrollment at the school has pretty much stayed consistent, with the last offi cial count coming in at 468 for kindergarten through eighth grade, according to school records.
And there’s a “waiting list” of 213 kids, which, for Pinder, is evidence that the school must be doing something right. “We’re a public school, funded by the Newark school district, and anybody can come here who’s a resident of Newark and expect to receive a quality education,” he said.
While many students aren’t yet stellar scholars, many have made progress, Pinder said. During the 2010-2011 school year, 51% of the school population achieved “high growth” (an improvement of 12 grade points or more) in math and 41% secured high growth in language arts, he said. “We moved in the right direction.”
During the same time period, the number of out-of-school suspensions fell from 470 the prior year to just 25. “That tells you how disruptive this school was,” said Pinder. The improvement, he said, “speaks to the climate and culture of the building. We find ways to reach our kids, to get them involved in the learning process.”
To get the students’ confidence and trust, “we created a safe environment. Our teachers are trained to be very nurturing – hard but fair so long as the kids put forth their best effort,” he said.
Outside fiscal assistance from the Victoria, MCJ Amelier and Gem Foundations for teacher development sessions was “huge in helping us improve our instructional practices,” Pinder said.
Among the school’s extra-curricular activities are a “robust” girls’ basketball program, a championship cheerleaders squad, ballet for kindergarteners, mixed martial arts for grades 5 to 8 and ballroom dancing for eighth-graders.
“We just hired a fantastic music teacher for the fall,” Pinder said. “We want to organize a band and chorus.”
During a two-week period in July, Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to noon, Lady Liberty runs “Kinder Camp,” an opportunity for incoming kindergarten students to get oriented to a school environment. They get to meet their teachers, participate in story-reading and social activities. And students in grades 5 to 8, meanwhile, make up classes they failed during the school year.
Holy Cross School, closed in 2009 as part of an Archdiocesan consolidation plan, was reopened in April 2010 to accept students from Newark’s Wilson Ave. Elementary School when that school was closed for an environmental cleanup.
In September 2011, Lady Liberty took occupancy.