Updated Jan. 17, 2012, 4:30 p.m.: Gov. Christie's office has announced that no decisions related to charter school approvals will be announced today. Expect decisions later this week. During his State of the State address today, Gov. Christie said that charters should be "focused on our failing districts."
When the proposed Hua Mei charter school held an , seven interested parties showed up. When opponents held a , more than 150 people attended.
Indeed, dueling petitions and the charter show a decided majority expressing opposition.
But founders of the charter — by NJ State Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf on Tuesday — assert that the charter is drawing support and interest from within and without the West Orange, South Orange and Maplewood communities.
Marcus Leon and his wife came across information about Hua Mei as they considered a move from Brooklyn to the Maplewood-South Orange community.
Leon is a systems analyst and his wife a graphic designer. They have a 20-month-old daughter named Olivia.
"We'd like Olivia to have an awareness of other cultures, and learning a language is one of the best ways to develop this," said Leon. "China is on the way to having the world's largest economy so kids who can learn Mandarin now should have a leg up in their lifetimes."
Leon also said that immersion seemed to be the way to go with Mandarin education. "We really like the immersion model. Hearing a language day in and day out is the best way for anyone, especially kids, to learn another language."
Leon said that he and his wife are looking to move out of the city to a family-friendly area where their daughter can attend an immersion program. "Maplewood and South Orange seem like great places to raise a family. With the addition of a Mandarin immersion school Maplewood/South Orange would be an extremely attractive place for us to move to."
Alden Rosen sees charters such as Hua Mei as a means to "raise the bar of education and ask more of our schools." Rosen, a former fashion executive and now a stay-at-home mom, said, "At the very least it provides another educational option to a family."
Alden and her husband Greg live in West Orange with their two children aged 2-1/2 (a girl) and 5 (a boy). For the record, Alden said that neither she nor her husband are Asian (he is Jewish and she's of European descent). Mr. Rosen has an MBA and owns a technology company. He commutes into the city daily.
The Rosens' children attend pre-school at the JCC. As of now, their son will start kindergarten at St. Cloud in the Fall. But Ms. Rosen would like to see her children benefit from a Mandarin-immersion education.
"Taking advantage of a child's brain development at this age, that ability, that window of opportunity to give them a lifelong skill set with which to function productively in a global society takes little consideration. Why wouldn't I give that to my child if I could? We live in such an insular world here in the US, any chance to bring the world 'outside' a little closer, make it more accessible, more malleable for our future thinkers, leaders, producers is a wonderful opportunity."
Ms. Rosen also supports the approval of the Hua Mei Charter because, she said, the "state of education in this country is a travesty when compared to the countries that we compete with, and deal with in business, government and law. However, our government can't seem to get out of their own way these days, so hoping that they will take action to elevate the effectiveness of our public schools in this generation, is not realistic."
Eric Wyrick is a violinist and the Concertmaster of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. His wife Alisa is a violinist with the New York City Opera Orchestra. The Wyricks have already committed to both serious musical instrument instruction and immersion in the Mandarin language for their 3- and 5-year-old daughters.
"As professional classical musicians, we know that it is an essential advantage to train our ears and fine motor skills at a very early age. We believe language arts requires similar attention."
"We are amazed with the ease of development through immersion in Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages to master for an English speaking tongue," added Wyrick in an email message to Patch. "Imagine the diverse population that is our neighborhood with dozens of Mandarin-speaking young adults and the opportunities that this skill may provide. The Hua Mei proposition is the best public school opportunity to study Mandarin through language immersion, the best system for achieving bilingual fluency."
Opponents — including the West Orange and South Orange-Maplewood boards of education — say that Hua Mei and other charters in suburban districts are deleterious , one of which is that they will remove money from the general budget of successful school districts during a time of budgetary constraints and increased operational expenses. Three local elected officials — Senator Richard Codey and Assembly members Mila Jasey and John McKeon, all of whom represent the 27th District — say that charters should be controled and managed by local vote, not by the state commissioner.
Proponents say that charters are public schools and are entitled to public funds. Also, they contend that a change in the law authorizing charters could jeopardize the future of an important tool for providing educational opportunities for public school children.
Hua Mei co-founder Kim Curtis is a South Orange resident with a background in communications. She now works with Keller Williams NJ Metro Group in Montclair and owns a digital photography and retouching business with her husband Craig in Glen Ridge. Their children, ages 6 and 3, have been attending Bamboo Shoots, a private Mandarin immersion pre-school in Westfield.
Despite the many slings and arrows aimed in the direction of Hua Mei in the last few months, Curtis says she and other founders have also seen a lot of positive response, such as that evinced by Leon, Rosen and Wyrick.
"I'm thrilled and encouraged by the outreach we've received through the launch of our website. Families throughout our district have reached out to us with their support and interest of the proposed school. I'm excited that tomorrow, we'll find out if the NJ Department of Education's 1996 World Language Curriculum Framework can at last be implemented — with a school centered around bilingualism and global competence."