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 at a recent training that brought together district and charter-school principals.

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.”

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”

counting students

As Griffin battles low enrollment in Tennessee’s state district, she looks to a school with a waitlist

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, far right, reacts as Westwood students say a chant with their teacher. Griffin, who took over the district in June, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students.

In a brightly decorated Memphis classroom with student work taped all over the walls, 26 second-graders sit attentive on a blue-colored carpet.

They are tracking every word their lead teacher Kaneshia Vaughn says. “Turn and talk with your partner,” Vaughn tells the kids. Excited voices fill the room. “Coming back in five, you turning towards me in four, hands in slant in three, tracking Ms. Vaughn in two,” Vaughn counts down. The classroom goes completely silent.

Sitting at a desk nearby, the leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, Sharon Griffin, says she is all smiles because of the “wowing and obvious” respect and enthusiasm shown by the students.

But here’s the other noticeable thing about this and other classrooms at Freedom Preparatory Academy-Westwood Elementary: They are full.

The school was taken away from the local Memphis school district in 2014 and given to Freedom Prep to run under the umbrella of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools. When Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter network, took over the elementary school, it had around 350 students. The school now has about 558 children enrolled and a waitlist of almost 80 students.

Griffin, who started as the district’s leader three months ago, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students. Schools get funding based on enrollment, so chronically low numbers can lead schools to shutter. Four schools within the state district have closed — all cited low enrollment as a main reason why. The district now runs 30 schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis.

“We want to learn from schools and be in close proximity to the work,” Griffin told a group of Freedom Prep network leaders she met with this month. “Freedom Prep has a waitlist, but many of our schools are under-enrolled. There’s something you’re doing and strategies we can share.”

School leaders say one of the first changes they made at Westwood was distancing the school from the word “turnaround,” which is often used in education reform to talk about improving the academics of a chronically low-performing school.

The Freedom Prep charter network was started in 2009 by Roblin Webb, a former Memphis attorney. Westwood is the only state school Freedom Prep runs, although the organization also operates four schools under the local Memphis district. Westwood Elementary lies two miles away from Freedom Prep’s first school, a high school that has had success raising students’ ACT scores and college acceptance rates.

“When we started the ASD school here, we already had a track record with the community,’ Webb told Griffin during the meeting. “Charters coming from out of state had a struggle with name recognition.”

Tiffany Fant, a parent of a 7-year-old at Westwood, told Chalkbeat she heard about the school from friends. Her child went to a school in the traditional Memphis district, Balmoral-Ridgeway Elementary School, but she felt he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. So, she came to Westwood last year.

“Now, he’s in speech therapy here and that’s been really good,” Fant said. “I feel like they spend more time on each kid here.”

Webb said their positive relationship with parents and churches really helped at the school — families that had left for schools outside of the Westwood neighborhood started coming back. But name-recognition was half of the battle. Like most schools, Freedom Prep has to actively recruit students.

But unlike many schools, the responsibility of recruitment doesn’t fall on school leadership. The charter network has a community outreach team that’s in charge of recruitment and enrollment, allowing principals to focus on academics at the start of the year.

“It takes the responsibility off of school leaders’ plates,” Webb said. “Every school has someone on site. It’s expensive.” To which Griffin responded, “It doesn’t cost as much as not having kids.”

Schools in the Achievement School District have also struggled to retain their highest-rated teachers. Freedom Prep’s leadership team told Griffin that keeping great educators has helped them keep students.

Researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College have said that disruption, or losing some bad teachers, is a key part of turnaround work. But they added that a school can’t thrive unless educators stay and improve — and that takes time.

Freedom Prep uses a co-teaching model — each classroom has a lead teacher, with the most experience, and a co-teacher. The two educators split responsibilities in the classroom. Westwood has retained its school principal for the last three years, and about 80 percent of its teaching staff, said Lars Nelson, Freedom Prep’s chief instruction officer.

That’s a very high rate of retention for a turnaround school, according to the Vanderbilt researchers. According to a 2017 brief, schools in the Achievement School District lost half of its teachers in the first three years.

“Our strong leader stayed, and that meant strong teachers stayed,” Nelson told Chalkbeat. “That’s big for us. When you think about it from a talent perspective, we’re keeping the people who have the biggest impact on student achievement.”

Vaughn, the Westwood second-grade teacher, left Westwood two years ago to teach at another Memphis charter school. But she came back last year because she said she missed the “family environment” of Westwood.

Sharon Griffin, right, tours Westwood Elementary with school leaders.

“It’s the kind of school where you know people actually have your back and you have theirs,” Vaughn said. “I also wanted to come back to a school where I felt like we had high expectations for our students, and the support to actually get them to those expectations. I see little and big victories in my students here. That’s rewarding in such a hard job.”

Lars added that Westwood still has a ways to go to achieve the level of academic success they want for their students. That’s not surprising — all schools within the Achievement School District were taken over because they were in the bottom five percent of schools academically.

When Freedom Prep took over Westwood, it was rated as a level one in student growth, the lowest level in the state’s rating system of a 1-5 scale.

Under Freedom Prep, Westwood was a one again in 2017. But in the new batch of scores released this month, Westwood jumped to a level three. For comparison, the state district overall scored as a level one.

In TNReady, the state’s end-of-year assessment, 10.6 percent of Westwood students scored on grade level in English and 11.2 percent in math. That’s slightly better than the district-wide average, but still far below the state’s average for grades 3-8.

While recruitment strategies and keeping good teachers have helped Westwood gain students, Lars said what matters most is a school with strong academics. If the school has a reputation of creating great learners, families will come, he said.

“We’re proud of our growth at Westwood but we’re also dissatisfied,” Lars said. “Our other elementary school, which is under Shelby County Schools, is a level five. And we fully expect Westwood to be a level five this year.”