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.”

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.