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.”