By JOHN T. WARD
Ending a 47-year career in education that included stints teaching science and math, producing musicals at Red Bank Catholic High, creating a high-school substance abuse counseling program and more, Pennotti called her work in fostering diversity at the charter school the “shining moment” of her tenure.
Contrary to claims by “people who don’t understand what we’re trying to do,” she told redbankgreen Tuesday, “it is a very rich learning environment, and it reflects everyone who lives in Red Bank.”
The school’s board of trustees has launched a search for a new leader, which it hopes to conclude by the end of the school year, it said in a press release issued late Monday.
Pennotti, who began her teaching career in Bergen County in 1972, was hired as principal and superintendent by the charter school in 1999, one year after its creation as alternative to the borough school district. She succeeded founding superintendent and principal Robert Nogueira.
The charter school’s operation is independent of district oversight.
In the ensuing 20 years, the charter school faced strong challenges, twice when it went to renew its five-year charter with the New Jersey Department of Education and once when it sought permission to double its enrollment of 200 students.
A 2004 appellate court ruling ended a legal battle begun three years earlier by the district over a charter renewal and expansion plan. But a second expansion effort, launched in 2015, set off a pitched battle involving hundreds of parents at several contentious meetings.
Opponents claimed approval of the expansion would saddle the host district with crippling expenses, leading to reduced staffing and larger classroom populations. The plan was rejected by the DOE in February, 2016.
Along the way, the school was characterized by adversaries, including an ad hoc committee created by Mayor Pasquale Menna, as responsible for making Red Bank “home to the most segregated school district in the state of New Jersey, with deep disparity” in racial makeup, primary language skills and economic backgrounds, according to its report.
The charter school drew blame because its student mix by race and ethnicity doesn’t mirror that of the public school system to which it is attached.
At the time, according to district Superintendent Jared Rumage, 90 percent of the district’s 1,407 students were Hispanic or African-American, compared to 48 percent of the charter school’s students.
Charter school advocates maintained, however, that its student population more closely reflected the mix of Red Bank’s student-age population.
“The real question is why isn’t the Red Bank district more reflective of the school-age population of the borough?” Pennotti wrote in an op-ed piece in November, 2016.
In 2016, the school instituted a weighted enrollment lottery that favors children from economically disadvantaged families. But because preference is given to younger siblings of current students ahead of new enrollees, most lottery winners end up on a waiting list and change in the mix has been slow.
“What we want is to find the closest possible reflection of the population of Red Bank,” Pennotti said Tuesday.
The charter school’s enrollment is now 49 percent Hispanic, 42 percent white, 7 percent black and 2 percent Asian or other, she said..
Additional challenges were mounted when the school sought a five-year renewal of its operational charter, an application approved by the DOE in February, 2017.
Last April, the DOE upheld the renewal on appeal. In its decision, the DOE found that the school does not not engage in “segregative” enrollment practices, and instead is “is seeking, ‘to the maximum extent practicable,’ to enroll a cross-section of Red Bank Borough’s school-age population.”
Pennotti traced the conflicts in part to the state’s school funding system, which she said “is a disservice to local districts as well as the charter schools.”
Under Pennotti’s leadership, the charter school established a home for itself at the site of the onetime Oakland Street School, moving a Victorian house across town in the process. And in 2017, the school paid $1.725 million for a commercial building on Monmouth Street that adjoins its small campus, where it plans to create the school’s first-ever gym.
Patti Balderas, a member of the charter school board of trustees who has put one child through the school and has another still in it, praised Pennotti’s leadership.
“She’s one of the reasons the school is such a gem,” Balderas told redbankgreen. “She was instrumental in carrying out what the founders set out to do. She really created what they had in mind.”
In retirement, Pennotti said she plans to “distribute time differently,” traveling and attending more dance and theater productions than she’s been able to get to while working.
She also plans to work on a capital campaign to raise $1 million for the completion of the gym, she said.
Meantime, the next round of the lottery is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m.