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School meets resistance

Regis Academy Charter School is scheduled to open its doors next fall to students in kindergarten through fourth-grade, but not if some residents, school district administrators and Mayor Bernie Platt have their way.

Regis Academy, which was founded by Pastor Amir Khan of Solid Rock Worship Center, was just one of four new charter schools in the state to receive approval from the State Department of Education late last month.

Khan said the organization had filed for charter approval the year before, but was denied by the DOE.

The school will be the first of its kind in Cherry Hill, although a charter was granted to another organization in 2006.

The school planned to open in September 2007, but a lack of funding kept it from opening.

Khan made headlines earlier this year when the Cherry Hill Police Department found evidence that many neighborhood burglaries were connected to an individual staying at the Solid Rock Worship Center at 99 Burnt Mill Road.

Solid Rock moved into the Ashland community in October 2010, when the church signed a lease with the Diocese of Camden, Holy Rosary Parish.

The five buildings that span more than 60,000 feet had become vacant when the parish merged with Holy Eucharist at 344 Kresson Road in 2009, said Peter Feuerherd, the diocese’s director of communications.

The newly granted charter will allow Regis Academy to operate out of the former Holy Rosary School building at 124 W. Evesham Road.

The school, Khan said, will serve up to 250 K-4 students in 2012–2013, with the addition of 50 students and a grade level per year, up to eighth grade.

The regional charter school, although based in Cherry Hill, will serve students from the township, along with students from Voorhees, Somerdale and Lawnside. The school is slated to have longer school days ­and aims for about 15 to 17 students per classroom.

One of the reasons, Khan said, to serve four school districts is to reach a more diverse population.

But all this comes at a cost to the school districts involved.

All charter schools in New Jersey are publicly funded, and in Cherry Hill, the school district reports that it will have to set aside about $1.9 million to support the new school, according to preliminary DOE numbers.

According to preliminary estimates based on projected enrollments at the school, the DOE estimates a contribution of $62,565 from Lawnside schools, $108,063 from Somerdale schools and $699,048 from Voorhees schools.

DOE Communications Manager Allison Kobus said exact figures on how much each school district would contribute are not known, in part because of the uncertainty of what state aid to each of the districts will be next year.

In a video published on the Cherry Hill School District’s website, Board of Education president Seth Klukoff said the district’s contribution to the charter school will likely impact the number of teachers and class size in the public school district.

To meet the funding requirements, Klukoff said the district might need to lay off 29 teachers. He said the district will also be charged with a residency investigation next fall, to account for all Cherry Hill students attending the charter school.

In a letter to acting DOE Commissioner Christopher Cerf in May, Platt expressed his opposition to the charter school.

“Simply put, a charter school would do nothing more than divert valuable tax dollars and resources away from the award-winning Cherry Hill School District to instead fund what is essentially a private, for-profit educational facility,” Platt wrote.

Khan said he anticipates the start-up costs for the school to be about $250,000, but expects to see that figure drastically reduced because of the school’s participation in a statewide charter school consortium.

He said the five-member group stands to collectively save by buying in bulk and applying for grant funding.

Regis Academy also has another mission in mind.

Khan said the core curriculum at Regis Academy will be the same as its public school counterparts, but will also incorporate the MicroSociety approach, which focuses on technology, business and entrepreneurship.

As a Cherry Hill West junior in 1973, Khan started selling water ice from his parents home and by senior year, he owned seven trucks and was supplying local stores, he said.

This got him thinking about teaching today’s students about business and entrepreneurship, skills that will be heavily incorporated as part of Regis Academy’s curriculum.

But, he said, he realizes the school is not for everyone. However, he said he feels strongly about providing options to a community of students.

“If you look up charter schools, they’re not designated just for poor kids in urban areas,” Khan said. “It’s about giving parents another choice.”

In the school district’s video, Superintendent Maureen Reusche questions why and where the need is for a charter school in Cherry Hill.

“We believe our children receive a quality education within our 19 schools across our district,” Reusche said. “Where is the need?”

The district has reached out to state legislators for support in appealing the DOE’s approval of Regis Academy and is also asking residents to contact state senators and the Senate Education Committee.

Khan, whose children also attended Cherry Hill public schools and whose grandchild attends Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, said he recognizes what the public schools in the area have to offer.

“I’m very aware of the excellent schools here. I love coming back to Cherry Hill where I grew up and impacting the children in this community,” Khan said. “I am surprised we are being frowned upon. I think people should be open minded about it.”

The mayor’s office is also looking for answers as to how Regis Academy recently received DOE approval.

“The mayor believes the Cherry Hill School District is a high-performing institution that creates successful individuals,” said township spokesman Dan Keashen. “The commissioner and DOE owe the superintendent and the mayor an explanation on why this was done. The mayor is committed and dedicated to getting answers and knowing why the DOE made this decision.”

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