Head of School Kristen Martello, center, at the charter school trustees’ meeting Tuesday. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
Parents of Red Bank Charter School students pressed for what they contend is an overdue return to a pre-pandemic “culture” Tuesday night.
At the school’s monthly board of trustees meeting, they complained of diminished engagement with parents, canceled events and other changes.
Teachers and staffers, however, defended the leadership of head of school Kristen Martello in the face of unprecedented challenges prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parent Corinda Bravo speaking at the meeting. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
About a dozen staffers and nearly as many parents attended the board’s meeting, with teachers braced for a possible push for a change in leadership just three years into Martello’s arrival at the 200-student school in mid-2019.
“Culture is more than events and customs of a group of people,” said teacher Siobhan Stratton, speaking on behalf of herself and 12 colleagues returning in September. “It is about the day-to-day practices, relationships and connections shared,” she said.
“A sudden change will directly and negatively affect the children,” Stratton said.
Business manager Theresa Shirley, who has worked at the school in various capacities for 21 years, said the pandemic triggered “an entirely new era of schooling” with an “unimaginably steep learning curve” just months after Martello’s arrival.
But Martello oversaw a switch to virtual learning, while ensuring all families had access to wifi at home and developing new instructional programs, Shirley said. When the school reopened for in-person classes, “students had ample opportunity to be involved in activities to the extent that Covid would allow,” she said.
In February of this year, over strong opposition by the borough school board of education, Superintendent Jared Rumage and the borough council, the charter school obtained a five-year renewal of its charter to operate from the New Jersey Department of Education.
A change in leadership now would provide “ammunition to those against us who want to close our school,” Shirley said.
Parents in the audience, however, did not call for Martello’s ouster, and instead demanded improved communication by both Martello and the board with parents.
Lisa Keele, mother of a rising eighth-grader and a 2021 graduate, praised Martello’s response to the pandemic as “amazing,” but said the school is “still hiding behind Zooms” for meetings and award presentations, and “not fulfilled all the community activities” previously offered.
“Dr. Martello has done a great job, and I would like to see it go forward,” said Keele, of Branch Avenue, “but I would like to see some changes.” She called for enhanced board involvement, efforts to restore “community connections” with the YMCA and the Red Bank Armory, field trips, internships and more.
Nicole Taetsch, of Hudson Avenue, also cited communication with parents, telling the board that if not for an alert from another school parent, “I never would have known this discussion was even taking place.”
Corinda Bravo, of Spring Street, said parents felt left in the dark during the recent charter renewal process. She pressed the board, as well as administrators and parents themselves, to “up our game with community engagement.”
“It has fallen by the wayside, for very obvious reasons,” she said. “But we need those relationships” with outside organizations, and the town, restored, she added.
“We cannot let what happened with the council happen again,” Bravo said. “We to be present, we need to be engaged.”
Christina Dostie, a mother of two RBCS graduates, said that in recent years, the institution had “drastically changed from what was a very vibrant, interactive, parent-involved environment to what is currently being run as a very traditional school.
“I have a real problem with that,” having been drawn to the school because it was different, said Dostie, of Mori Place.
“This school has been run like an office building,” with “highly disappointing” internship program for eighth-graders in the most recent school year. “I think the culture has been lost – not forever,” she said.
“Moving forward, there’s no more talking about the last two years,” said Dostie, who leads the Red Bank Charter School Foundation, which recently raised $135,000 to the school toward the cost of a new gym. “We need to get back to some of the charter ways – a lot of the charter ways.”
In response to a redbankgreen request for comment, Martello sent the following via email Wednesday morning:
The Red Bank Charter school is founded on parent engagement. The pandemic eliminated this essential component to our beloved school. I was thankful and appreciative of the staff and parents who complimented my leadership throughout these difficult times and to the Board of Trustees who stated, “We stand behind our School Leader.”
Ultimately, all stakeholders have a desire for the school to return to the great things that make RBCS unique and innovative. We are hopeful for an uninterrupted school year ahead full of many innovative experiences for our students and a return to welcoming our families back to our robust events.
Martello took over from Meredith Pennotti, who retired after a 47-year career in education that included guiding the Oakland Street institution through its first two decades.
Pennotti, who was present, told redbankgreen that talk of her coming back to lead the school was “disturbing and unreliable.”
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