Foundation For Life

Foundation Academies Charter School Provides an Education Alternative in Trenton

Photos courtesy of Foundation Academies Charter School

By Anne Levin

Every spring since 2007, Foundation Academies in Trenton holds a lottery to determine which children will attend the following fall. It is an emotional evening — at once joyous and mournful.

“It is one of the most gratifying, but also the saddest nights of the year,” says Graig Weiss, CEO of the charter school that teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grades. “We now have more than 800 kids on the waiting list. People go away either crying or screaming with joy.”

Trenton parents are clamoring to get their children into Foundation Academies Charter School because it provides a positive alternative to the city’s beleaguered public schools. Since 2014, Foundation has graduated 228 students, every one accepted into four-year colleges. “This year we had our first Ivy Leaguer,” Weiss said, proudly. “He got accepted to Princeton, with a full ride.”

Charter schools have exploded across the country in the past two decades. They are privately run but publicly funded, which is part of what makes them controversial. They are schools of choice. Students are not assigned to a school because of where they live; instead, parents choose to enroll their child in a charter school.

In New Jersey, the Department of Education is the authorizer of charter schools. While several other charters in the capital city have foundered, Foundation Academies has thrived. The school opened 11 years ago with 80 fifth- and sixth-grade students. High school and primary school were added later, and the student body currently numbers 1,100. The first graduating class was in 2014.

“The Trenton district schools really struggle,” says Weiss, who was previously the principal of Foundation’s intermediate school. “The whole idea, at first, was just to run a good middle school. But by 2010, we realized these kids were graduating, and where would they go? We took a big leap of faith and opened a high school. We knew we just had to do this for our kids. Without a high school, we weren’t fulfilling our mission.”

Weiss is in his office at 363 West State Street, once the headquarters of New Jersey Manufacturers before the insurance giant left Trenton for the suburbs. Foundation Academies now owns the spacious building, home to the primary, intermediate, and middle school grades. The high school, Foundation Collegiate Academy, is in a recently purchased building at 22 Grand Street. College is clearly the goal for Foundation students. Every classroom at 363 West State Street is named for a college or university. The building’s hallways are lined with pennants. Academic standards are high, and the students are expected to work hard — with no exceptions.

“I came in fifth grade,” says Courtney Boone, now a junior at The College of New Jersey. “I was in the second graduating class. It was hard. They really pushed me. But they got me to where I need to be, not just with academics, but with life skills, too. I had four to five hours of homework every night. It was challenging.”

Re-enrollment is 91 percent. Families moving out of state account for some of that statistic, but students who can’t take the rigorous standards account for some, too.

“Once in a while, it doesn’t work out,” says Weiss. “But often when the kids who leave see what it’s like elsewhere, they want to come back. And unfortunately, they can’t just step back in.”

There is that lottery to contend with, even for those who work at the school. It took three years for Cintella Spotwood, a teacher’s aide at Foundation Academies, to get her daughter, son, and niece accepted by repeatedly entering the lottery (her niece was on the most recent waiting list and got in when a spot opened up).

“I graduated from Trenton High and I worked for Trenton Public Schools,” Spotwood says. “I see what it can and cannot do. Seeing the support here, I really wanted my kids to go. It was very disappointing when we didn’t make it, but we kept at it. This is the best the city has to offer, and I wanted my kids to have that chance.”

Foundation’s academic calendar is 191 days, as opposed to the public schools’ 182. The school day is longer, varying by grade level but usually from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Every student from fourth grade on plays a string instrument — violin, viola, or cello — because the discipline involved has proven to help them in academics and their personal lives. Musical standards are high. At the high school level, orchestras are often led by students, under the supervision of an instructor. “The program is pivotal,” says Weiss.

Students also take part in programs to encourage character-building and civic service. They work in teams on projects that can require them to write grant proposals and organize community gatherings. Audrey Vargas, a senior who came to Foundation Academies in seventh grade and hopes to pursue a career in criminal justice, chose sexual assault as her topic in the Service Learning class.

“It’s a big issue in Trenton, but it’s not really talked about,” she says. “We hosted an information session with Womanspace, and it went really well. It taught us to have initiative, and not wait for anyone else to do what needed to be done.”

Jennifer Araya, also a senior, is the child of a single mother who only speaks Spanish. With her mother’s challenges in mind, she made single parenthood the focus of her project. “We put together an event, and we had to do it all ourselves,” she said. “Single parents came and went. We started with three and ended up with about 20. My mom came and it was good, because it gave her an opportunity to vent. And I learned a lot about communication skills.”

Foundation’s curriculum is developed internally, based on New Jersey learning standards. “It is very objective-driven,” says Weiss. “I tell my teachers, ‘this has to be a school we would send our own kids to. I want to see furrowed brows in math class and smiling kids having fun at recess.’”

Some teachers have complained on websites where they can post anonymous reviews that the school is too demanding. “Good environment; terrible workload,” writes one. “Great kids, but poor leadership and unrealistic expectations,” writes another.

Weiss counters, “This work isn’t easy, but it is incredibly rewarding.  We have a track record of success…over 11 years of academic success and all five graduating classes with 100 percent of our graduates earning admissions into four-year colleges.  Our staff members work incredibly hard to produce these results for our kids.  And all that hard work is changing the trajectory of many of our students’ lives.”

Future plans for the school include a new playground at the West State Street building, funded by BAI Brands beverage company. With its growing reputation and long waiting list, the school continues to focus on character-building, self-advocacy, and academic growth.

“It’s about believing in kids,” says Weiss. “And it’s about excellence, always. From what we feed them for lunch to what we teach them in class, we want to give them the best. Because society has put our kids at a disadvantage. We’re not where we want to be, but we keep driving toward it.”