New Jersey has put two struggling Newark charter schools on probation, a rare sanction that could lead to closure if the schools do not make swift improvements.

The two schools, University Heights Charter School and M.E.T.S. Charter School, together serve nearly 1,000 Newark students and were ordered to create plans to address the low test scores and chaotic classrooms that state officials found.

New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent probation letters in May to the schools, along with three other charter schools outside Newark. The schools were required to inform families and staffers of their status. 

But the education department did not make a public announcement or publish a list of schools on probation, which has allowed the troubled schools to continue operating mostly out of the spotlight. (Chalkbeat obtained the letters Friday through a public records request.)

In his May 23 letter to University Heights, Repollet said the school “has failed to maintain a high-quality education and has declined in academic achievement” since 2015. During school visits this year, state officials saw students engage in “unsafe” behavior and learned that about 20 classes were being taught by substitutes, he wrote.

M.E.T.S. Charter School, which has landed on the state’s probation list twice since opening in Newark two years ago, faces “continued issues with safety and security,” including violence and drug offenses, Repollet wrote in his letter to that school. He also cited “low-quality” teaching. In March, state officials learned that only six of 40 seniors were expected to graduate on time.

In early 2020, the state will decide whether to renew the schools’ charters, or contracts, which allow them to operate — or whether they must close after June. While all 88 New Jersey charter schools undergo such a review every few years, the state’s decision to put the two Newark schools on probation ahead of their scheduled reviews amounts to a warning: They have fallen far short of expectations and must make major improvements if they want to keep their doors open.

“Charter schools are held to high standards by the state,” said Harry Lee, president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, in a statement.

“The schools are understandably concerned about their probationary status,” added Lee, whose group has provided support to both schools, “and are actively working to implement their remedial plans to best meet the needs of students and families.”

The leaders of University Heights and M.E.T.S. did not respond to requests for comment. A state spokesperson said the education department continually monitors all charter schools, and “increases monitoring” of schools on probation.

Newark boasts some of the top-performing charter schools in the country, including ones run by the national KIPP and Uncommon Schools charter networks and Newark-based Robert Treat Academy. Yet the success of the city’s leading charter schools can overshadow the struggles of others — four of which the state has shuttered since 2017.

Even before they were sanctioned this spring, the two Newark charters showed signs of trouble.

University Heights, which opened in 2006 with the support of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church, enrolls more than 900 students from preschool to eighth grade. Over the past few years, the school’s test scores have spiraled downward. Its scores on the 2018 state tests ranked it among the bottom 5% of high-poverty schools in the state, leading the education department to downgrade the school from middle- to low-performing.

When department officials visited two of the school’s three campuses in March, they observed “disruptive, off task, and unsafe student behaviors” that teachers struggled to manage, according to Repollet’s letter. They also witnessed “low level” lessons, and an abundance of substitute teachers.

Melissa Cabrera, who has two children at University Heights, saw many of those challenges firsthand. At school board meetings over the past year, she complained about student bullying, instability at the school, and too many substitute teachers, according to minutes from those meetings.

In an interview, Cabrera said that conditions improved after a new principal took over the elementary school last year and a permanent sixth-grade math teacher replaced a substitute. In general, the school is responsive to parents’ concerns, she said, adding that she expects further improvements this fall.

“I have faith in them,” she said. “We have a lot of strong teachers; we have an awesome director.”

In a letter to families in June, University Heights’ executive director Tamara Cooper said it had been an “especially trying” year for the school community, marred by staff turnover and the death of a student. She noted that the school had been placed on probation, calling it an opportunity to focus on “much needed tweaks to our system.” Those changes include the creation of a new “alternative school” for students with academic and discipline problems, “stabilized staff,” and a new mentoring program, she wrote.

The other charter operator facing state scrutiny, M.E.T.S., manages a school in Jersey City and a high school in Newark. The Newark school got off to a chaotic start after opening in August 2017.

That October, shortly after a student brought a loaded handgun to the campus, M.E.T.S. officials said they would shutter the Newark school that spring and immediately send students in the lower grades to other schools. But the state blocked that plan, saying the school could not unilaterally remove students, most of whom had come to M.E.T.S. from other charter schools that the state shut down.

“It was a lot of dysfunction,” said David Flores, who attended the school that year and is now in college.

The state put M.E.T.S. on probation in October 2017, before removing that designation the following year. Since then, parents, students, and staffers have complained to the state about “the safety and security of students” at M.E.T.S., according to Repollet’s letter. Multiple police reports have also been filed relating to incidents at the school, the letter said. In March, a student at the Jersey City campus assaulted at least one faculty member, according to news reports.

In April, state education department officials conducted a surprise visit of the M.E.T.S. Newark school alongside officials from the Newark Police Department and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. The visitors found that teachers did not appear to have control of their classrooms, many students and staffers were disrespectful to one another, and students expressed “overall discontent” with the school, Repollet’s letter said.

In a letter to families in May, M.E.T.S.’s interim lead administrator, Damion Frye, listed several steps being taken to address the state’s concerns. To keep students focused, the school now collects their cell phones during the day, he wrote. The school has also hired teachers to fill open positions, provided coaching for teachers, and hired a new security company as one of several measures to “reduce violent incidents” and improve the school’s culture.

This month, a new principal took over the Newark school, which is moving to a new building about four miles from its current space in Newark’s Central Ward.

Once the school is released from probation, Frye wrote optimistically in May, “M.E.T.S. Charter School will be much improved in our academic outcomes, safety and security, and innovative experiences this special place can offer each student.”