After sharing space with a neighboring Newark elementary charter school last year, Fairmount Heights Middle School students are calling a new building home.
On Wednesday, the middle school students and staff welcomed dozens of community members and education professionals to the ribbon-cutting of the new 32,000-square-foot facility in the West Ward and celebrated the completion of the pre-pandemic project.
Operated by the Great Oaks Legacy Charter School network, the new middle school is now home to more than 324 students, including its inaugural eighth grade class set to graduate in June.
Jayla Kemp, one of those eighth grade students, said the new building brings more opportunities for him and his classmates.
“It has been a lot to be at different campuses but I’m glad that we finally have a place to call home,” said Jayla, during the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. “This new building has given us all the opportunities to have a better learning environment.”
The new building marks the charter network’s third middle school in Newark. The new three-story facility serves fifth through eighth grade students and is equipped with a gymnasium, tutorial classrooms, support spaces, and six administrative offices.
The middle school opened four years ago at the charter school’s previous location at 909 Broad Street in Newark. After being at that location for two years, school officials acquired a new building from the Chad School Foundation, also in the West Ward, which would turn into the home of the Fairmount Heights Elementary School and temporarily house fifth, sixth, and seventh grade Fairmount Heights Middle School students last year.
Charter school officials began planning the new middle school building in 2019 and after obtaining clearance from the city, recruited KSS Architects and Phelps Construction Group to design and build the school. Construction for the project began in January 2021 and took 18 months to complete.
Great Oaks Legacy, which is currently serving 1,900 students in pre-K through 12th grade across campuses in the Central and South Wards of Newark, opened the Fairmount Heights Elementary School Campus, its third elementary campus, last year. The newly renovated building, located near the corner of South Orange Avenue, was previously occupied for over 25 years by the Chad School.
“At the time the elementary school opened, it served kindergarten and first grade students, plus the fifth, sixth, and seventh graders at the middle school,” said Great Oaks Legacy spokesperson Dominick DiFalco. “They all fit because it was the elementary school’s first year and the building had four floors.”
The Local Initiatives Support Corporation provided a $2.2 million loan for the acquisition and pre-development work for the new middle school building. The school also contracts with Nu-Way concessionaires to provide hot lunches to students, including the roughly 87% of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
Board of trustee member Dr. Karma Warren attended Wednesday’s event at the new school and said bringing the new building to the West Ward was a “dream come true.”
“I wanted to make sure that kids in Newark had a chance,” Warren said. “Seeing this school built right now is like a dream come true. We are bringing you the best because you deserve the best and you deserve to know that you can succeed.”
The opening of the new school building comes after the state rejected the expansion plans of Newark’s largest charter school networks, including Great Oaks Legacy. North Star Academy, KIPP, Great Oaks Legacy, and Robert Treat Academy charter networks can continue operating but cannot add additional seats, state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said last year. She also renewed two other charter schools, Achieve and LEAD, but put them on probation due to performance issues.
Great Oaks Legacy is a free college-prep charter school that focuses on learning combined with daily tutoring. According to the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, 85% of students attending charter schools are students of color, 72% of students are from low-income households, and 10% are students with disabilities
In the New Jersey Start Strong Assessment, released in 2021 by the Department of Education, findings showed that 32% of charter school students in the state’s five largest cities with the most charter schools – Newark, Trenton, Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson – are more likely to “approach or meet grade level standards” in English language arts and 55% more likely in mathematics compared to traditional district peers.
Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at firstname.lastname@example.org.