A brightly lit, modern gymnasium is among several state-of-the-art features at KIPP New Jersey’s Newark Collegiate Academy on Littleton Avenue, which opened in fall 2016. — Courtesy: KIPP New Jersey
By Joshua Burd
Since the opening of its first Newark location in 2002, the KIPP New Jersey charter school network has been both ambitious and strategic with its expansion plans in the city.
That is all too clear from its newest facility, a state-of-the-art, 84,000-square-foot high school that opened in 2016 in Newark’s West Ward. Built at the former site of a long-vacant Boys and Girls Club building, the complex offers everything from a science suite and performing arts space to a vibrant gymnasium that is a source of pride for students and staff alike.
“Folks love the facility,” Gabriella DiFilippo, KIPP New Jersey’s chief operating officer, said during a tour of what’s known as the Newark Collegiate Academy. “Even though our last high school was very nice, this feels like more of a suburban high school — and our kids deserve the same experience as kids who live in more affluent ZIP codes, so it’s really exciting to have kids move into this building and take advantage of all the amenities it has.”
Located on Littleton Avenue, the $35 million facility is one of eight KIPP New Jersey schools in Newark. The organization says it has invested more than $100 million in facility renovations and construction in the city over more than 15 years, amid rising demand in a municipality in which charter schools now serve roughly 35 percent of its enrolled students.
KIPP has met that demand with the type of nimble, resourceful approach that is often used by developers and real estate investors in urban settings. The proof is in the makeup of its portfolio, which includes everything from new construction and renovated facilities to leased spaces in places like the heralded Teachers Village project.
The group now plans to remain flexible and creative as it continues its expansion. The nonprofit, part of the sprawling national KIPP network of charters, has a plan to grow to 15 schools in Newark in the coming years.
“We’re actively starting the process for the next phase of growth,” said DiFilippo, a former real estate consultant who joined KIPP in 2012. “So we’ll be looking at existing school buildings, vacant land and a whole range of options to develop or find more facilities.”
The charter network has come a long way from its first facility in Newark, the KIPP TEAM Academy on Custer Avenue, which housed a single class of 80 fifth-graders. Today, the organization educates more than 4,000 students across a footprint that includes roughly 325,000 square feet of buildings it owns and another 127,000 square feet of leased space in the city.
DiFilippo said KIPP’s major growth spurt in recent years began with the previous Newark Collegiate Academy location, which opened in 2012 after a $22 million project on Norfolk Street. The organization then launched an elementary school known as KIPP SPARK Academy within the $150 million, 400,000-square-foot Teachers Village project on Halsey Street.
Its recent expansion has also involved buying and renovating a former district elementary school on 18th Avenue as part of a roughly $30 million project, DiFilippo said.
The network has further improved its facilities through projects such as a new gym at its original TEAM Academy building and a new field at its RISE Academy middle school on Ashland Street.
“We own both of those facilities, but they are older, so it was nice to do some investment in the infrastructure of the facility and help to really make the surrounding neighborhoods even nicer than they were from the activity of the schools,” DiFilippo said. She added that KIPP has used funding sources ranging from historic tax credits and tax-exempt bond financing to the federal Qualified School Construction Bond program, which provides subsidies to reduce borrowing costs.
“We’ve done it all in terms of trying to find financing sources to do facilities,” she said.
The network also set out to upgrade its offerings at Newark Collegiate Academy, or NCA, leading to the recently opened high school on Littleton Avenue. The project has provided a lift to the neighborhood in the process, requiring the redevelopment of a former Boys and Girls Club building that had sat vacant for nearly a decade.
For the roughly 650 students at NCA, the new high school provides an additional 20,000 square feet and several new amenities that the previous facility did not have. Chief among them is an on-site turf field, a community room and a separate gymnasium and cafeteria, which allows KIPP to provide more space for both school functions and community use.
The facility also has an additional 20,000 square feet of unbuilt capacity on two upper floors, providing the organization with room to expand.
“We do plan to grow in Newark, so having extra classrooms is a good thing,” DiFilippo said. “Right now we’re OK, but if we get those rooms all built out, it could allow for either having the high school spread into that space and adding kids or incubating a middle school or an elementary school.”
KIPP New Jersey now has its sights set on reaching 15 schools in Newark, but that has become increasingly difficult as the city has become more attractive to private-sector developers. Property values have risen in areas close to the downtown and the University Heights neighborhood, DiFilippo said, making it difficult to envision additional expansion in those areas.
That means KIPP will have to remain creative as it looks for additional ways to expand, which is all but certain despite opposition from some public officials. Charter schools are proving to be an increasingly popular option for parents using Newark’s four-year-old universal enrollment system. DiFilippo said the network aims to serve that demand as part of its planned growth in the near term, which could bring charter school enrollment to about 40 percent of city students.
“It’s a very viable option for families, given other choices in the city,” she said. “So demand is high, and as long as demand is high we continue to plan to serve it.”
Partners in education
The highly touted Teachers Village project in downtown Newark marked its official completion last fall, capping off a development that is now being considered as a national model for urban renewal that is anchored by education.
For KIPP New Jersey, the project provided a critical option in its bid to grow its footprint.
The organization’s KIPP SPARK Academy is one of three charter schools that lease space in the six-building, 400,000-square-foot development by RBH Group. And as KIPP New Jersey COO Gabriella DiFilippo notes, the decision to do so proved to be one of the network’s most significant partnerships with the private sector, providing an alternative to options that require borrowing and other complex financing solutions.
“It’s nice to go into a lease situation where a developer is building to suit so that you can say, ‘This is what I can afford in rent,’ and they develop backwards from that price,” DiFilippo said, adding that KIPP worked with RBH Group to find government subsidy programs that helped keep those rents affordable.
“So it was a real partnership to make sure that they were designing space that we need and that we could afford, but that also helped spur the rest of that development along,” she said.
Other developers have approached KIPP about similar partnerships, DiFilippo said, given that it’s one of the city’s larger charter school networks. Those discussions have yet to yield anything similar to Teachers Village or a partnership of a smaller scale, but she said it’s important for the nonprofit to have every option available as it considers its own growth plans in the city.
“We do everything to find sites and as we continue to grow, we’re about to step up our efforts to look for additional sites,” DiFilippo said. “If we see vacant land, we’ll call the owners. Sometimes we have to cobble together parcels just like any developer would. … You name it, we try it for our facilities. We do it all.”