Enrollment 101

Should ‘Newark Enrolls’ be scrapped? A guide to the debate over Newark’s controversial enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Now that Newark’s school board has appointed a new school superintendent, both face a fundamental question that has long roiled the district: How should its 51,000 public-school students enroll in school?

Some in the city want to keep the current system, which folds together admissions for district and charter schools, insisting that it reduces the burdens placed on parents. Others want to overhaul or even abolish the system, arguing that it shuts some students out of their top choices and boosts charter-school enrollment at the expense of district schools. It’s a heated debate that’s now coming to a head.

In the not-so-distant past, enrollment meant walking to your neighborhood school to register, or submitting an application directly to one of the city’s many charter schools. But in 2014, the district adopted a radically different system, first called “One Newark” and now known as “Newark Enrolls,” that allows families to apply to almost any public school in the city — traditional, magnet, or charter — using a single online tool.

Newark was one of the first districts in the country to adopt this type of centralized enrollment system, which was designed to make it easier for families to take advantage of the city’s different school options. But its glitchy rollout sparked an uproar among parents, as charter critics attacked it as a ploy to funnel students into the city’s growing charter sector.

Four years and numerous improvements later, many families have grown used to the system, which uses an algorithm to assign students to schools based partly on their preferences. “If they’re able to select their school, and their child is going to their first choice, then there’s not a problem,” said Stacy Raheem, who as a staffer at Unified Vailsburg Services Organization, a West Ward community organization, helped about 40 parents apply to kindergarten for the fall.

And yet, the enrollment system, which was installed by an unpopular state-appointed superintendent, has never recovered from the controversy that marked its origins.

Now, the system’s fate will be decided by the elected school board — which just regained authority over the district this year — with help from the district’s newly selected superintendent, Roger León. As they weigh their options, board members have been hearing from district officials and charter-school leaders, who are scrambling to defend the system. But diehard critics continue to call for its dismantling.

“All you guys will be held accountable,” said Daryn Martin, a parent organizer, during public comments at a board meeting last week where he denounced the enrollment system. “Something’s got to be done about this.”

As Newark’s school-enrollment debate ramps up, here’s a guide to how it works and what could change.

What is Newark Enrolls?

“Newark Enrolls” is the city’s single enrollment system for most charter and district schools. About 12,100 families used it to apply to more than 70 schools this year.

Families can rank up to eight schools on a single application, which most complete online. (Those without online access can fill out paper applications.) Then a computer algorithm matches each student to a school based on the student’s preferences, available space, and rules that give priority to students who live near a school or whose siblings go there.

It costs the district about $1.1 million per year to manage the system.

Which schools are part of it?

Most of the city’s charter, magnet, and traditional schools participate in Newark Enrolls.

Newark is one of just a handful of cities, including Camden, Denver, and Washington, D.C., to feature this kind of “common” or “universal” enrollment system. It’s meant to spare parents from having to submit multiple, time-consuming applications that may have different deadlines — a system that advantaged families with the most time and resources. A centralized process also prevents schools from discouraging high-needs students from applying, an accusation that charter schools often face.

The city’s charter schools, which are independently operated, must agree to let the district manage their admissions. This year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter operators signed on. Charter schools that don’t participate, such as Robert Treat Academy and Discovery, handle their own admissions lotteries.

Students can also apply to the city’s six magnet high schools through Newark Enrolls. But unlike other district or charter schools, magnet schools are allowed to rank applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors, before the matching algorithm is run.

How well does it work?

There are different ways to measure that.

One indicator of success is how many families get their desired school. This year, 84 percent of incoming kindergarteners were matched with their top choice, and 94 percent got one of their top three choices. Among rising ninth graders, many of whom were competing for seats at the city’s coveted magnet high schools, only 41 percent got their first choice and 70 percent got one of their top three.

Another metric is parent satisfaction with the process. Among nearly 1,800 people who took a survey after completing an online application this year, 95 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the enrollment process. A similar share said the application was “easy” or “very easy” to navigate.

Yet another yardstick is equity. One stated goal of the universal enrollment system was to ensure that charter schools, which enroll a third of Newark students, serve their fair share of students with disabilities. To achieve that goal, the system’s algorithm gives these students a boost when applying to schools where this population is underrepresented among applicants.

Both charter and magnet schools now serve more special-needs students than they did before Newark Enrolls. The increase was especially dramatic at magnet schools, where the percentage of ninth-graders with disabilities jumped from 5 to 13 percent between 2014 and 2017,  according to a recent report by researchers at Columbia University, who note that the changes may have been caused by other policy changes in addition to the new enrollment system.

“This is about equity and access for all families,” said Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason, who is calling on the school board to preserve the universal enrollment system.

Still, the system has not, by itself, erased enrollment disparities.

Traditional high schools continue to serve a far needier population than magnet or charter schools, where the share of ninth-graders with disabilities inched up from 13 to 15 percent over that period. (At traditional high schools, the rate is 22 percent.) Also, the policy that gives priority to students who live near schools effectively walls off popular options from students in other neighborhoods, while magnet schools are essentially allowed to turn away students with low test scores or poor attendance records.

And no matter how well the algorithm works, there are too few high-performing schools to match every student to one who applies. In the most recent admissions cycle, about 1,800 rising ninth-graders listed magnet schools as their top choice — but those schools only had 971 seats to offer.

Why has it been controversial?

The enrollment system’s reputation has never fully recovered from its explosive inception.

It was rolled out in late 2013 as part of “One Newark,” a sweeping overhaul that closed, consolidated, or restructured about a quarter of the city’s schools. Unveiled in one fell swoop by former Superintendent Cami Anderson, the plan was met with bitter protests and a federal civil-rights complaint.

Technical aspects of the enrollment system were initially flawed as well. Some families got no placements, while others had siblings sent to far-flung schools. Meanwhile, the district only provides busing to certain students with special needs — leaving families who are matched with distant schools to find their own transportation.

“They did a real good job of uprooting Newark,” said Daryn Martin, the parent organizer who spoke up at the most recent board meeting and whose children attended Ivy Hill Elementary.

Since then, the district has tweaked the algorithm and provided parents with more information to help them choose schools. School board members say they continue to get complaints from parents who have problems with the system — but far fewer than in the past.

Still, the system remains embattled. In 2016, the school board passed a resolution to dismantle it — though the state-appointed superintendent at that time, Christopher Cerf, kept it in place. Today, critics who say Newark Enrolls is designed to steer students into charter schools continue to demand that it be scrapped.

“Are we going to spend a lifetime improving something,” said Newark Teachers Union President Jon Abeigon, “or just admit it was a failure?”

What could — or should — change?

Several school board members have called for big changes to the enrollment system. But they’ve yet to say what those should be.

“It does not work for everyone,” said board member Yambeli Gomez at a forum in April before she was elected. “We just have to make it better.”

The challenge for the board, now that it’s back in charge of district policy, will be to find a way to fix the system’s flaws without introducing new inequities for students or hardships for parents.

The board has some time to do that. Under state guidelines, it must keep the current enrollment system in place for the coming school year. Already, several board members have discussed the system with the Newark Charter School Fund, and the full board peppered the district’s enrollment chief, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, with questions at a meeting at Science Park High School this month.

Most members acknowledge that it would be difficult to scrap Newark Enrolls entirely and return to a system where students are automatically assigned to their nearest district school because many schools have been closed. Not to mention, the survey data suggests that many parents favor the current system.

“You can’t just dismantle universal enrollment,” said board member Tave Padilla. “You would have chaos.”

But the board could overhaul the existing system. One option would be to boot charter schools from it. Doing so might steer more families into district schools, but it could also recreate some of very inequities universal enrollment was meant to eliminate — families with the ability to fill out multiple applications would enjoy the most school options, and unscrupulous charters could potentially skim students.

The possibility of being ejected from Newark Enrolls is causing alarm among some charter operators who worry they might attract fewer students if families have to once again fill out separate applications for each charter network or school, according to people in that sector. The concern is greatest among independent charter-school operators, who often have local roots but lack the advertising and recruitment budgets of the larger networks. Some operators have discussed creating a single application for all the city’s charter schools, but that will only be necessary if the board decides to terminate the universal system.

Another option is to find ways to improve the current enrollment process. Roger León, the incoming superintendent, appears to favor that route. In a recent interview, he floated the idea of restoring a committee that in the past would review every appeal from families who were unhappy with their assigned schools. Such a review panel could make an impersonal system feel more responsive to families, but it wouldn’t be able to satisfy every parent seeking a seat in one of the city’s limited number of high-performing schools.

Whatever the board decides, León said he is committed to maintaining a system where families have school options — even if the process for exercising that choice is altered.

“I believe families make decisions where their child should go,” he said, “and I don’t think anyone should change that.”

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”

unified enrollment

As Memphis parents struggle to find information about schools, one parent group is calling for a simpler enrollment system

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
A Memphis Lift rally in 2017.

Memphis parent Leisa Crawford didn’t have time to look through dozens of websites and zig-zag hundreds of miles around town to find a school for her child.

So she relied on word-of-mouth.

“When you live here in Memphis … you don’t go on the website,” she told members of parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift earlier this year. “We heard about KIPP, Snowden — OK, we’re going there. Or it’s a neighborhood school and we don’t even look past that.”

Parents have found it difficult to get information about schools because there are so many types to choose from compared to 20 years ago. So Crawford and dozens of parents like her are calling for a simpler way to access information about the more than 200 schools in Memphis.

Memphis Lift third annual parent summit
  • What: Parents in the Memphis area and beyond will gather to talk about education issues including unified enrollment. Panel discussions will include local district leaders as well as parents from Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Washington, D.C. to share their ideas.
  • When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27
  • Where: Perea Elementary School, 1250 Vollintine Avenue

They hope a process called “unified enrollment” will help them make sense of their choices and get their children into their favorite school. In unified enrollment, each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent. Often, information about schools is included on the application website.

Memphis schools have been segregated for decades. Currently, parents who are white, well-connected, and affluent have a better chance of getting into the best schools. They have more time to research, and so are more informed about school offerings, quality, and application deadlines.

But parents from low-income families, who are mostly people of color, often have less flexible schedules because lower paying jobs do not offer many opportunities for parents to take off from work to look for schools. This means they often miss school application deadlines — and better schools tend to fill up long before then.

“Over the years, we’ve talked with parents and grandparents who are frustrated with their neighborhood schools and are drowning in the process to enroll their children in high-performing schools,” said Sarah Carpenter, Memphis Lift’s executive director.

“They know their babies are not getting the education they deserve, but parents can’t always find a solution,” she continued. “The truth is, when parents can’t get access to quality schools, then real school choice doesn’t exist.”

A handful of cities see unified enrollment as a way to solve that problem, including Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. The program in Detroit never happened because of a toxic political environment, poor planning, and bad timing. Newark’s got off to a rocky start, but enjoys almost unanimous support from parents who use it.

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Tents line the grounds outside of Shelby County Schools’ central office in 2016 in Memphis, where parents have camped out every January in recent years to apply for select optional schools. The application process moved completely online in 2018.

Simplifying how parents enroll their children in Memphis schools is already in progress. Shelby County Schools now allows parents to apply and transfer to schools online — including its sought-after optional schools that require students to score well on tests. The district enrolls about 80 percent of Memphis public school students; the other 20 percent are charter schools or schools run by the state.

Unified enrollment has been floated twice before in Memphis — once in a 2015 report commissioned by the Achievement School District, and again during meetings last year , between Shelby County Schools and its charter sector. But talks haven’t gone far.

The 2015 report by the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice included interviews with school leaders, education advocates, parents, and philanthropists, and said the city is ripe for unified enrollment.

National philanthropies have widely supported unified enrollment because they want traditional districts and charter sectors to collaborate on the process, and not compete with each other for students. To avoid claims of bias, some cities have brought in a third-party to manage the system.

Critics say unified enrollment unfairly helps the charter schools that otherwise wouldn’t have as big a platform to advertise their programs. Supporters say the benefits of unified enrollment outweigh the issues. Though many policymakers have called for changes in their unified enrollment systems, few have called to scrap them entirely.

Shelby County Schools’ application process would be combined with charter and state-run schools, which is a tough sell because the district sees those schools as competitors. School board members said as recently as this summer that charter schools are a significant financial burden that state lawmakers should help alleviate.

Still, district leaders’ interest has grown in recent years.

One of Shelby County Schools’ own, Sharon Griffin, has taken the reins at the state-run district. Griffin is known for her collaborative leadership. Her new role could help bring more cooperation between the state-run district and the local district and make unified enrollment more likely. But this is just one of many thorny issues for the two districts to sift through, including sharing student information, and managing crumbling facilities.

Last year, Shelby County Schools was more open to unified enrollment as part of a larger effort to educate parents on their choices, and even sent out a survey to charter operators to gauge interest.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Natalia Powers

“There is some interest,” said Natalia Powers, who oversees community engagement for the district, during a meeting last year on the issue. “Of course there are some questions about who would manage it, the funding, and all the logistic implications that go along with that. There is interest on both ends to have conversations about what that could look like.”

Ultimately, she said the parent’s interest should be top of mind as leaders consider a unified enrollment system.

“It’s not about the school leader,” she said. “It’s about ease and accessibility to parents.”

The change could help school operators too, said Carpenter, the parent advocate. Schools could track parent preferences more easily and give operators a better idea of how many students they will enroll. But the real winners would be parents, she said.

“Access and choice are different,” she said. “We have choice but we don’t have access to choice.”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.