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.”

universal choice

Denver’s window for choosing schools opens Tuesday

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The one-month window for Denver families to list their top school choices for next school year starts Tuesday and runs through Feb. 15.

Denver Public Schools expects to inform families of their school placement results in late March.

Denver Public Schools has a universal school choice system that allows families to use a single online form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in the city. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. This year, 60 of Denver’s 213 schools are charters.

While many school districts nationwide have a contentious relationship with charter schools, Denver is known for its collaboration with them, which includes the universal enrollment system. That collaboration has been the subject of criticism from parents, teachers, and community members who see the independent schools as siphoning students and resources from district-run schools.

The 93,000-student school district especially encourages families with children going into the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade to fill out a choice form. Families list their top five school choices, and the district uses a lottery system to assign students.

Schools can set their own enrollment priorities. Many district-run schools give high priority to students who live within their boundary and to siblings of current students, for example.

The district also has 15 “enrollment zones,” which are expanded boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the school closest to them.

Denver has used zones as a way to increase school integration. Many neighborhoods in Denver are segregated by race and income, and the district’s reasoning is that widening boundaries provides the opportunity for a more diverse school population.

But a 2016 district analysis found that enlarging middle school boundaries had not decreased school segregation as much as district officials hoped it would.

The district also has a school integration pilot program that gives students from low-income families priority to enroll at schools that serve mostly students from affluent families. The results have been modest, and district officials are exploring ways to expand the impact.

how we got here

I’m a white teacher who chose a high-poverty school for my daughter. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

When I read Saratu Ghartey’s story last fall that beautifully and honestly captured her experience touring, searching for, and finally selecting a “good” preschool for her son, I recognized myself. I, too, have been consumed by tours and distraught by the inequity among schools across districts — for years as an educator and now as a parent, too.

I spent the first decade of my career teaching at Title I schools that served mostly black and brown students, many from immigrant families. The first was an ambitious small high school with unrealized dreams of inspiring community organizing, and the other a more established 6-12 progressive school nestled in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. Regardless of location, neither school was sought after by middle-class white families.

Some of my students came resistant, unconvinced that they had anything to gain from a white lady like myself. And in the beginning, their doubts won me over. So I sought out mentors, drowned myself in teacher books, and eventually learned how to lead with a stern, intentional, witty kind of love. I committed myself to crafting curriculum that was culturally relevant, to helping students see the ways that their stories, their histories, their voices mattered.

I was often disheartened by the apathy I saw, kids more interested in their cell phones than the texts I had presumptively selected. Often when I pushed disengaged students, I found that their minds were on a sick loved one, an anniversary of a death, a shooting in their building, the chronic discomfort of a shelter. My lesson was white noise floating above the soundtrack of their trauma. And, as teens do, they formed community around their traumas, taking on each other’s burdens so that the load would be dispersed. This meant that many of my students were often distracted, and I often found myself drained and ill-equipped to give each student’s crisis proper attention.

And yet, I was also energized by my students’ willingness to re-engage each day. Teenagers, though often grouchy, are refreshingly optimistic. Their resilience, brilliance, humor, and belief in possibilities fueled me. They were not hamstrung by crises, and some went on to win writing contests and earn competitive scholarships at prestigious colleges. I loved them fiercely, and we always made space for laughter. My colleagues were among the most dedicated, innovative humans I have met and they helped transform the lives of their students.

Because of these experiences, I am one of the white parents Ghartey describes: I have chosen to enroll my white daughter in a high poverty, mostly black and Latinx school because this school embraces and values the children of our neighborhood. Ghartey asserts that the stakes for her black son are too high to make this choice, and unfortunately, the stakes are different indeed. Though I worry that class and cultural differences may leave my daughter feeling out of the loop and efforts to fit in may present as cultural appropriation, I, unlike Ghartey, do not fear that assimilating to her school culture will lead my daughter to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Authorities will never view her skin color as inherently threatening.

So I share my own experiences more for families like mine, grappling with whether the benefits of a diverse school outweigh the perceived costs. I know that they do, for all students — a perspective informed in part by having worked for the past year at a more economically diverse school where addressing students’ socio-emotional needs is more manageable because fewer students live in poverty.

The students at my current school often produce more, take their thinking further, and perform better on state tests not because I have magically become a better teacher or because they have greater aptitude — it is because a majority of them come from middle-class homes. A majority of them trust that school will help them succeed (as it helped their parents) and enter the classroom with their personal needs satisfied. Their investment fuels an atmosphere where learning is the main focus.

This dynamic allows me as a teacher to dedicate more time to students whose skills are lagging or who need additional emotional support to deepen their thinking. Last year, one of my students lived in temporary housing and entered with a vendetta against books. I was able to give him the extra attention he needed — access to headphones, a laptop, a school Audible account, new books by the brilliant and relatable Jason Reynolds — and this reader jumped three grade levels by June. I could do that because the majority of the other students in his class could make progress with greater independence.

In another class, I was able to offer individualized attention to a student whose home language was Montenegrin, and whose struggles with English syntax barred her from comprehending grade-level texts. In collaboration with our dynamic special educator and speech teacher, I helped this student gain confidence and make progress. We discovered midway through the year that another student, whose parents were embroiled in a divorce, was contemplating suicide. Because his crisis was not competing with many others, we were able to get him the immediate attention, support, and resources he needed.

I also witnessed the powerful benefits classroom diversity had on my white, middle-class students. One boy learned through his interactions with a Latinx classmate who lived in public housing that the phrase “all lives matter” was offensive, and a girl found inspiration in a black peer who boldly shared her critical insights with peers but who privately struggled with writing mechanics. In his final evaluation of the class, a white student, who flaunted his wealth and openly ridiculed his less affluent peers, reflected that his experience that year taught him how to listen more to people and be kinder. “You never know what someone is going through,” he wrote.

This isn’t just the beauty of a diverse school — this is the reason public schools exist. When we pool our resources and allow everyone to access to rich, joyful learning and high expectations, we allow public schools to be the great equalizers that they ought to be. Yet, in a city where we have the unique opportunity to bring kids of various backgrounds together through school, we usually decline. When middle class parents flock en masse to specific schools, they deplete others of the opportunity to realize public education’s equalizing potential. And even as individual families make difficult choices to integrate schools, the system remains hypersegregated.

As I weigh K-5 options for my daughter, I am not immune to that sinking feeling that my daughter is going to miss out if I don’t fight for entry into the schools that get all the buzz. I’m drawn to more progressive options outside of our neighborhood where children learn more through exploration, teachers have the luxury to draw out their natural creativity and curiosity to deepen learning, where success on the state test feels more like an afterthought than the driving mission.

PHOTO: Contributed by Stumpf
Alie Stumpf and her family

Yet these schools are already oversaturated with white upper to middle class kids — demographics that stand in stark contrast to our beloved neighborhood. As Ghartey wrote, many families of color choose schools with a more traditional approach when possible. I could also throw our hat in the ring at the “unicorn” school and others like it. But I think the unspoken requirement to beg for admission into a public school disqualifies the institution from truly being for the people.

As I consider these possibilities, I recall what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said at a recent event I attended for parents and advocates seeking a less segregated school system: “If you make the choice only for your child, you’re choosing to sacrifice someone else’s.” I know true equity means giving up privilege so that others may also enjoy it. It means making myself vulnerable to the “rocks” Ghartey mentions that are inevitable whenever a community changes. It means that my daughter’s classrooms may not look as flashy as the most coveted elementary schools because her teachers are using their prep periods to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students. It may mean that some of her peers come to school distracted, or that the presence of the state test looms over too much of the work they do.

But let’s get real: my daughter will carry her whiteness and its privileges into this setting and will be just fine; the rocks for her are never going to be as sharp as they are for Ghartey’s family. Throughout most of history, we’ve left it to black families to be the pioneers of integration. It’s long past time for white families to step up in New York City.

And they should because it’s best for us, too, on the merits: at an economically and racially diverse school, my daughter will grow up as part of a vibrant, resilient community, among classmates who live both a few blocks away and a whole world apart, broadening her perspective and enfolding her in a real neighborhood. The attractions of diversity played a big role in my and my husband’s decision to settle in the city rather than the suburbs. But that’s only window-dressing if we don’t insist that this diversity be reflected inside schools and not just outside them.

Though I am hopeful about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase school diversity, I think school integration will only be achieved when white families like mine commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods. It may take hard work — more PTA involvement, more fundraisers, more listening and understanding — but most things worth having do.

Alie Stumpf has been teaching reading and writing in New York City public schools since 2006. She lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches sixth-grade humanities in Manhattan.