School Choice & Charters

Charter School Network Founded by Former Gates Official Struggles

By Christina A. Samuels — July 15, 2011 2 min read
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A three-school charter school network founded by former Gates Foundation official Tom Vander Ark that was intended to open this fall has struggled to find financial footing and will be delayed at least an additional school year, according to an article in today’s New York Times.

Vander Ark, the former executive director of education for Gates, oversaw $1.3 billion in grants from 1999 to 2006. He was the architect of the philanthropy’s small schools initiative, but the foundation has since expanded its reach beyond that initiative (which stumbled badly, according to this Education Week article from 2005.) Vander Ark is now promoting online learning through his firm, OpenEd Solutions.

As the article explains, Vander Ark was granted charters in 2010 to open two schools in Newark, N.J. and school in Brooklyn. Brooklyn City Prep had hired a principal, procured space in a public school building, and was seeking its first class of 8th-graders. The schools were to blend traditional and online teaching.

But, the article says, “But after spending more than $1.5 million of investors’ money on consultants and lawyers, Mr. Vander Ark, 52, has walked away from the project, and the schools will not open as planned this fall, leaving others involved stunned and frustrated.”

Vander Ark says that economic pressures have led to a delay in the schools’ opening. Others who have worked with him say the problems were due to mismanagement.

In an email to Education Week, Vander Ark says that “opinionated piece” was based on information from a school developer the charter network worked with who was dismissed. “She based her story on his criticism despite being provided with a set of documented facts that proved not only that we worked around the clock to help them get funded but also that we were very clear with everyone about our role going back to 2010.”

Vander Ark also said: “The fiscal crisis meant that all the state grants that used to be available for charters were suddenly disrupted and funding for customary pre-opening grants got incredibly tight. For sure, we did and were able to make up for some of the shortfalls but not [were] not able to do so indefinitely, and this was made clear to folks on many occasions. These economic climate challenges were amplified by the fact that we were advocating the blended learning approach, which is a new and highly effective paradigm and is just now gaining wider acceptance.”

The students who were interested in attending the Brooklyn charter school were asked to list several charter schools that interested them, and will move on to another school on their list, Vander Ark explained. In the meantime, the schools are looking for another management organization or funder to take over them.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.