Jersey City will get a new independent charter school next fall, only the second such authorization granted by the state Department of Education in the past five years and one that its founders plan will enable the school to offer instruction in grades 6–12.
Put together entirely by the married couple Katie Hahn and DJ Hartigan, who are in their early 30s and moved to Jersey City last year, Kindle Education Public Charter School will be located in a brand new building in Journal Square. When it opens next September, it will take in just sixth and seventh graders; it will add one grade per year thereafter until the 2027–28 school year when it will have to reapply to add grades 11 and 12 (something they expect to receive authorization for). If everything goes according to plan, they will be Jersey City’s only charter school expressly for grades 6—12.
Hahn and Hartigan began designing Kindle while working on a fellowship in California in 2020. In two years, they raised roughly $400,000 in a combination of venture capital and money from friends and family. With their state charter, they can now apply for over $1 million in additional funds from the DEP.
Both husband and wife grew up in the the New York City area. After their stint in California, they yearned to return to the Northeast to establish Kindle.
“We were looking for a highly diverse district in the Northeast … and for communities that needed more schools and were interested in the type of school we wanted to found,” said Hahn. In addition to Jersey City, certain districts on Long Island and in the Hudson River Valley met their criteria. They chose Jersey City because it was where “by far” they got the best response from educators and families that that they spoke to, said.
Kindle will be located at 32 Oakland Ave. in a building being developed by Urban Property Developers, Inc., of Denville, New Jersey. Having wanted to site the school in Lafayette, they looked for space there but found themselves priced out of the market. Journal Square did offer a more central location. When they met with UDC owner Milton Fantin, someone they found “really generous negotiating terms of the lease and in supporting our buildout,” they became convinced that Journal Square was in fact ideal.
Hahn and Hartigan attribute their having gotten state approval to their school design. Kindle will feature small class sizes and rely heavily on tutors (in addition to teachers) for instructional support. Students will set personal educational goals that they will work toward in small groups, something the founders believe will allow each child to progress through the material in the various subject — and to some extent even customize the content of the curriculum — according to his or her unique interests and abilities. All curriculum, assignments, grades, and other data the teachers collect on the students’ performance will be housed on the computer.
“Our model is on the innovative end of the spectrum … wholistic learning, student-directed learning, personalized supports, tutoring … and our ability to put them together in a comprehensive application was looked on very favorably by the state,” Hartigan said.
Students will begin each day in a daily session called “Spark” that focuses on “social-emotional and metacognitive learning, exploration of curiosities (with the eventual goal of purpose-finding), and goal-setting and planning,” said Hahn and Hartigan (by email). They will go on to 80-minute-long classes in math and the humanities by the time the day is done. They will also spend 80 minutes daily in “science and forge,” the latter term referring to work on experiential projects.
Only two such periods per week will be spent on art, music, or Spanish. Kids wishing more time on any of those subjects will need to ask their teacher (or tutor-coach) to weave that content in to material during another time slot. Hahn and Hartigan said their “workshop” model — and the use of the computer to house all educational content, assignments, and data about each student’s progress — would allow for this deeper study and individuation.
Initially, the school will have three classes of sixth graders and three classes of seventh graders each with approximately 22 students. Every math, English, and social studies class will have one teacher and one tutor for a student-adult ratio of 11:1. In order to afford the tutors, who may be teachers in training or recent college graduates, the school will not be buying any of its curricular materials; instead it will use content that is free.
“Instead of using the money on curriculum, we’re going to reallocate a lot of that money into personnel,” said Hartigan.
Lest this give the impression that their content would be inferior, however, Hahn said, “Some of the most highly regarded curricula today is open source from organizations like Illustrative Math and EL Education, so it’s not like the random free resources you might have found online ten years ago but ones developed by researchers with studies behind them.”
Added Hartigan, “Illustrative Math 6–8 has a perfect score on Ed Reports.”
For parents concerned that Kindle is leaving too much of their kids’ education to the computer (or that their kids will be spending too much time online), Hahn and Hartigan said that “the majority of the actual learning, problem solving, creating, questioning, exploration, etc. will happen in small groups, collaborative teams, on whiteboards, through dialogue, in projects etc.”
And for parents (and students alike) who had difficulty using the online interfaces schools so hurriedly introduced during Covid, the couple was equally reassuring.
“Learning platforms don’t have to be complicated and difficult to navigate. … We have been exploring partnerships with more modern, intuitive platforms that prioritize ease of use,” and they have been working with online learning platforms in various capacities for seven years, they said. “It is an area we feel particularly qualified in.”
Two other facets of Kindle set the environment apart. Every Friday students will participate in a “Bonfire Initiative,” small semester-long group projects done with their teachers (and perhaps with local nonprofits or businesses) to “create change.”
And unlike other Jersey City schools, which are merely diverse, Kindle will be “intentionally” diverse. Students and administrators at Kindle will want to learn from and work with others who are different from them, whereas students in diverse schools (who are thrown together by happenstance) often do not want to co-mingle, according to Hahn. Ironically, it is Jersey City’s very diversity that attracted Hahn and Hartigan in the first place. In fact, according to Niche.com, Jersey City Public Schools are more diverse than 370 out of the state’s 374 school districts.
Kindle will have three co-leaders: Hahn, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended The Dalton School, Harvard College, and NYU School of Social Work before pursuing a career in educational administration; Hartigan, a product of the Wyckoff, New Jersey, public schools and an alumnus of Johns Hopkins University and High Tech High Graduate School of Education (not to be confused with High Tech High School in Secaucus), among other organizations; and a third leader yet to be hired.
A preliminary board of directors (and one open to new members) is helping guide Kindle’s buildout. Hahn and Hartigan are also advertising for teachers.
Parents interested in signing up for an information session about Kindle Education Public Charter School (such as the one on December 1) or enrolling one or more of their children can do so on the school’s website. Hahn and Hartigan will conduct a lottery in mid-February 2023 to determine which students can matriculate.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kindle was the first charter school of any kind given state authorization in the last five years, that the school would need authorization each year beginning in 2025 to add a grade, and that the first 132 students to apply for enrollment would be accepted.