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.”