Projects Couple Affordable Teacher Housing With New School Construction
A Newark, N.J., complex’s ties to charter schools has created tensions in the district
Last school year, Sanjana Hossain lived just a few steps from her job as a teacher's assistant and tutor at Great Oaks Charter School, in the center of Newark, N. J. The school was part of a brand-new complex called Teachers Village, where Hossain resided in a three-bedroom apartment with four other tutors. Great Oaks paid the rent as well as a portion of her tuition toward a master's degree in education.
Now that Hossain is a 6th grade language arts teacher at Great Oaks, she will move into her own junior one-bedroom in Teachers Village, at $1,200 a month, nearly $200 cheaper than the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in the city. The place would be a steal for teachers who currently commute to Newark from across the river in New York City, where the average one-bedroom rents for an estimated $3,100.
But Hossain sees the proximity of her apartment to her work as another benefit. "Without the stress and time of commuting," she said, "you are able to stay at work longer and get so much more done. Teachers can put in those extra hours, to make sure they're developing engaging lessons and grading assignments on time to drive their instruction."
Initiatives to provide affordable housing options to teachers are neither new nor uncommon, with districts ranging from Santa Clara, Calif., to Hertford County, N.C., currently offering such programs. But Newark's Teachers Village is part of a small but growing movement to create lower-cost and convenient living spaces for teachers as part of new school construction projects.
In the case of the Newark project, the fact that the schools in question are charters has been a particular source of tension.
The largely privately financed Teachers Village complex, designed by Newark-born architect Richard Meier, famous for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, encompasses three charter schools, 214 apartments, a gym, and 65,000 square feet of retail space. Private security guards patrol its five city blocks.
The developer behind the project, RBH Group, is spearheading similar initiatives in Chicago and Hartford, Conn., reportedly in connection with the construction of traditional public schools. A separate, smaller project that RBH is not involved in has been launched this year around the development of a two new charter schools in the District of Columbia.
For supporters, the projects represent a new way of thinking about how to attract and retain teachers. The goal, they say, is to make life easier, safer, and even a bit luxurious for teachers who log long hours in high-needs neighborhoods.
"At its core, this is a recruitment and retention tool," said Ron Beit, the president and CEO of RBH Group. "We saw what was going on in the education space in Newark, where there are more young, idealistic teachers coming from all over the region, only about 50 percent of whom lived in the city."
While Teachers Village houses three charters, its reduced-rent apartments are available to traditional public school teachers in the Newark district as well. According to figures Beit provided, in 2015, 18 percent of the residents are regular district teachers, 38 percent are charter school teachers, and 44 percent are AmeriCorps tutors who work at Great Oaks Charter School. (RBH Group didn't respond to requests for updated residency figures by press time.)
According to federal data from 2014, roughly 24 percent of Newark's students attend charter schools.
Back in 2006, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker pushed vigorously for the $150 million, six-building Teachers Village project, which was largely underwritten by big private donors like Goldman Sachs Inc. and spurred by tens of millions of dollars in city, state, and federal tax breaks. Booker, now a U.S. senator, says he put a lot of energy into starting the project because he thought it would provide an economic lift to the city.
"We really transformed the way the neighborhood area feels, creating a multiplier effect," he said. "There are businesses and restaurants outside the Teachers Village area that are now growing and thriving because of the change. This is all happening because we are highlighting the empowerment of young people."
But not everyone shares Booker's enthusiasm for Teachers Village.
Newark Teachers Union President John M. Abeigon says the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, initially backed the project because it thought it would benefit more traditional public school teachers. At the start, he says, the developers had emphasized its planned support for such educators.
But Abeigon contends that the project then became aligned with what he calls the "corporate charter school movement." For evidence, he cites the complex's three charter schools and the fact that most of the apartments are rented to charter teachers and staff.
Abeigon's concerns are echoed by Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT.
"This was supposed to be a way to recruit and support and retain Newark public school teachers," she said. "That was the basis on which then-president of the Newark Teachers Union Joe Del Grosso [now deceased] and the AFT said this makes sense, because we really do believe in the idea of teachers living in the communities in which they teach. But Teachers Village came to be about charter teachers alone and that was dead wrong."
Abeigon also argues that the complex's close ties to charter schools belie the developers' professed commitment to the long-term health of the community—a sentiment shared by other critics of the project.
"It's a known fact that traditional public school teachers, who I refer to as career educators, stay longer than charter school teachers, so their commitment and investment in the community is that much greater," he said. "Those living in Teachers Village are going to be turnaround tenants. They'll do their two-year stints with [Teach For America] or a charter school, beef up their résumés, and then go get a job elsewhere. They aren't going to really be invested in Newark."
Booker insists that no one type of teacher was given priority for housing in Teachers Village. "Teachers Village is just a good thing for everybody because it creates jobs and educational opportunities. Whether kids go to a charter school or a public school, if their parents get a job, that helps relieve poverty in the city," he said.
But Abeigon believes the funding for the project could have been better used to help traditional public schools. In his view, the tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks that went to the developers diverted money that public schools could have sorely used.
"Charter school expansions lead to public school closings and employee layoffs," he said. "If a public school teacher wants to live in one of those apartments, it's fine with me. It's a free country, they can live anywhere they want. However, I would ask them to take into consideration that their rent is going to sponsor their own demise."
Beit dismisses charges that the project has favored charter schools, saying leases were offered to the school district and that advertising for the apartments has been extended to all teachers. He added that criticism that the teachers renting the apartments won't put down ties in the community or remain in the teaching profession misses the bigger picture.
"Whether they stay as teachers, how long they stay, that remains to be seen," said Beit. "But we are attracting new people to Newark, number one, and number two, we are attracting people to the education field who wouldn't otherwise be here. These are wins in and of themselves."
For her part, language arts teacher Hossain says she's not going anywhere.
"Why would I leave?" she said. "This is definitely a long-term decision. Teaching is difficult. There are so many trials and tribulations that come along with the job. Yet here is a community where people support each other. At the end of the day, I know there will be someone close by to support me when I need it, and that is the best feeling ever."
Vol. 36, Issue 05, Page 7Published in Print: September 21, 2016, as Projects Couple Teacher Housing With New School Construction