policy promise

Newark’s district-charter enrollment system is here to stay, new superintendent said in meeting

PHOTO: Courtesy of Uncommon Schools
Superintendent Roger León speaking to educators at a Newark charter school this year.

Newark families will continue to use a single system to apply to traditional and charter schools, the district’s new superintendent told charter-school leaders at a meeting last week.

The comments by Superintendent Roger León, which were recounted by people at the meeting, are his clearest statement to date that he intends to preserve the system known as “Newark Enrolls” — even though critics, including some school board members, have called for it to be dismantled. Proponents say the system simplifies the enrollment process for families and gives them access to more schools, while critics say it is meant to boost charter-school enrollment.

León also said that charter schools are a “big part” of his overall vision for the district, and added that he would not force them to help pay for Newark Enrolls, which cost the district about $1.1 million to manage this past school year, according to attendees of the June 27 meeting.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, now serve about a third of Newark public-school students. Yet they remain controversial, with critics arguing that they drain resources and engaged families from the traditional school system. In March, Mayor Ras Baraka called for a halt to their expansion.

As a Newark Public Schools graduate and veteran educator who is popular among many of the city’s charter-school critics, León was expected by some observers to take a harsher stance against charter schools than his state-appointed predecessors, who encouraged the charter sector’s growth. That is why the charter leaders were encouraged to hear León, who officially started as superintendent on July 1, promise to work closely with their schools and retain the joint district-charter enrollment system.

“We heard his words loud and clear,” said Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, which convened the meeting. “We walked away feeling confident in his commitment to keeping a unified enrollment system.”

A district spokeswoman did not provide any response on Tuesday.

León spoke for over an hour at the meeting, which was attended by representatives of 14 of the city’s 18 charter school operators, including KIPP New Jersey, North Star Academy, Great Oaks Legacy, and Robert Treat Academy. It was one of a series of private meetings León held in the weeks since the school board chose him as superintendent in May. He also met with clergy members, union officials, district-school principals, and parent leaders.

During the charter meeting, he vowed to visit many of their schools in the fall, according to attendees. He also decried the divisions between some staunch district and charter-school supporters, saying he wants every school to be successful.

More provocatively, León noted that some of Newark’s traditional public schools have lower standardized test scores than the charter schools that were closed by the state in recent years for poor performance, the attendees said. He then reiterated his point that every school, whether district or charter, should be a good option for families.

He echoed some of those ideas in a press release Monday marking the start of his tenure.

“We will promote parent choice and ensure that every student is enrolled in a high-quality school in every ward throughout this city, regardless of school type,” León was quoted as saying in the press release.

The state decides when to shutter charter schools or allow new ones to open; the Newark school board and superintendent have little say in the matter. But the district does control the enrollment system, which was launched in 2013 as part of a sweeping overhaul by former Superintendent Cami Anderson that also involved closing some schools.

One of only a few combined district-charter enrollment systems in the country, it was designed to make it easy for families to apply to multiple schools without having to fill out separate applications or meet different deadlines. The centralized system, which allows families to apply to up to eight schools, was also billed as a way to ensure that schools did not exclude hard-to-serve students. (Since it was launched, magnet and charter schools have enrolled more students with disabilities — though still less than traditional schools.)

Newark Enrolls has become popular with many families, with 95 percent of 1,800 survey respondents this year saying they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with it. However, it remains tainted by its early rollout, when some students received no placements or were separated from their siblings, and by the perception among critics that it is a ploy to steer students into charter schools.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, a fierce charter-school critic, recently called the enrollment system “a failure.”

In 2016, the school board passed a resolution to dismantle it — but the state, which controlled the district at that time, ignored it. This year, the board regained full control over the district. In April, it gained three new members who said during the campaign that Newark Enrolls is seriously flawed.

One of the new members, Dawn Haynes, who is now vice chair of the board, said at a candidate forum that the enrollment system has led to students being assigned to schools far away from where they live. As a result, some students arrive late to school or even end up in dangerous situations as they navigate unfamiliar neighborhoods, according to Haynes.

“It needs to be dismantled,” she said.

León, who was an assistant superintendent under Anderson, said recently that he would “reflect on” concerns that families have with Newark Enrolls. The only change he has floated so far is reinstating an appeals committee that families could turn to if they are unhappy with the school they’re matched with.

Now, both critics and proponents of the enrollment system are waiting for León’s next moves.

If he hopes to preserve the system — and keep charter schools in it — he will need to bring along skeptics on the board, which has promised to review the district’s enrollment policies. He will also have to make his case to critics in the community, such as Johnnie Lattner, a parent organizer who ran for a school board seat.

Lattner, who is a co-founder of the group PULSE, or Parents Unified for Local School Education, said he was surprised to learn that León plans to keep Newark Enrolls because many community members oppose it.

“People selected him because they think he will listen to what the community wants,” Lattner said. “So that’s very concerning to me.”

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.