meet the new boss

Live on a Jumbotron, Newark’s new superintendent shares his big plans with 7,000 district employees

Superintendent León called his back-to-school campaign "Give Me Five!"

School hasn’t started yet in Newark, but the district’s students and staffers are already learning that their new boss intends to do things differently.

Roger León, a former principal and administrator who became superintendent on July 1, asked all high school students to attend orientation sessions this week.

He ordered every district employee to call several students’ families in the coming days to remind them about the start of school on Sept. 4.

And he summoned all 7,000 or so of those employees — everyone from teachers to custodians to central-office staffers — to the Prudential Center in downtown Newark on Tuesday for a meeting that was part pep rally, part strategy session.

León’s remarks at the all-staff event Tuesday morning, and a school board meeting that evening, offered the fullest picture to date of the new superintendent’s intention to shake up the district, which returned to local governance in February after 22 years under state control — even as he provided few details about how he plans to accomplish the remarkably ambitious goals he laid out, including having every student pass the state exams.

“We’re going to get someplace incredible; we’re going to get there fast,” he said on the Prudential Center stage, his image projected onto the arena’s Jumbotron screens. “There are going to be stories told about the work ahead.”

León spotlighted some sobering data, which showed the steep climb ahead.

He began with individual schools’ pass rates on the 2018 PARCC exams, which the state has shared with districts but not yet released publicly. The data showed that less than a quarter of students passed the math exams at 24 of the district’s 37 elementary schools, which were listed in order from highest to lowest-performing on the oversize screens. Among 15 high school programs, 12 had fewer than 25 percent of students pass the math tests — including Eagle Academy for Young Men of Newark, where just seven students passed.

León did not share the districtwide pass rates for 2018. But in 2017, 24.4 percent of Newark students were proficient on the PARCC math tests, compared to 43.5 percent statewide. In English, 32 percent were proficient, meaning they scored at a level 4 or 5, compared to 55 percent statewide.

León also highlighted the district’s troubling attendance figures. Nearly 10,800 of the district’s 36,000 students were “chronically absent” last academic year, meaning they missed more than 18 school days, according to data León presented. The numbers suggest the district’s chronic absenteeism rate, which was 30 percent in 2016-17, has barely budged. Research shows that students who frequently miss school tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

“We have a lot of work to do,” León said at the board meeting, where officials presented more detailed data.

Against that backdrop, León announced several goals for the coming school year that are hugely ambitious, if not entirely improbable.

First, he called for 100 percent attendance. (The district’s average daily attendance in 2016-17 was about 90 percent.) Second, he set a goal for all students to achieve proficiency on the PARCC exams. (Last year, the state set a target of 31.5 percent of Newark Public Schools students to achieve proficiency in English and 24.6 percent in math.) Finally, he said the district should be “second to none,” but did not explain how that would be measured.

The district has not released a public document detailing León’s goals or his plan, and a spokeswoman did not respond to emails asking her to elaborate.

Without going into detail, León touched on a number of changes he is planning, which he said will help put the district on an upward trajectory.

To boost attendance on the first day, León is asking every employee to call the homes of five students — a campaign he is calling “Give Me 5!” He is also planning to bring back attendance counselors, who in the past were responsible for calling families and searching the streets for absent students. Former Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off 46 attendance counselors in 2013 to help balance the district budget, but León said he would restore those positions using $4.3 million in savings that he said were the result of his recent move to force out 31 central-office administrators.

“Effective tomorrow, we will have a [job] posting for attendance counselors,” León said at the staff meeting, drawing cheers. The police department will also provide some officers to join the counselors on truancy patrols, he added.

He also introduced a plan to address the stark divide between the district’s six magnet schools and seven traditional high schools. The magnet schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talents, have far higher test scores and graduation rates and lower absenteeism and dropout rates than the traditional schools, which must admit anyone who enrolls.

Part of his plan involves pairing up traditional and magnet schools to participate in joint staff training and share curriculum. Each traditional school will also establish a specialized program related to the theme of its partner school. For instance, Weequahic High School will develop an engineering program with the help of its partner magnet school, Science Park.

León gave employees a document illustrating his vision for the district titled “NPS Clarity 2020.” The framework features a flow chart tracing students’ movement through the school system, a dozen “keys to 2020,” and six “game changers,” including alumni, internships, and “wraparound services.”

Many of the planned initiatives are not likely to begin until next year, including the specialized “academies” at the traditional high schools and the truancy patrols. Meanwhile, León said his administration is reviewing the district’s policies around graduation, discipline, and grading.

Even if the new superintendent’s vision will take time to materialize, several educators said they were energized by hearing his plans. Many rode in yellow buses to the arena wearing matching shirts with their schools’ logos. Afterward, Gregory Holtz, a drama teacher at East Side High School, said it was a powerful experience to see thousands of district employees come together to meet their new leader.

“This is like a new beginning,” he said.

Board Approved

Newark will keep universal enrollment for now — even as key dispute between charter schools and city appears unresolved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León gave a forceful defense of universal enrollment Monday before the school board voted to continue it.

Newark will keep its universal enrollment system for at least another year, despite critics who say it poses a grave threat to the district by allowing families to easily opt into charter schools.

The city’s board of education voted Monday to preserve the controversial enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families use a single online system to apply to most traditional and charter schools. Just two years ago, the board tried to dismantle the system, arguing that it drained students and funding from the district as it fueled the charter sector’s rapid growth.

But, on Monday, the board appeared persuaded by the district’s new superintendent, Roger León, who said it is their duty to make it easy for families to send their children to whatever schools they choose — even private and parochial schools, which León said he hopes to eventually invite into the enrollment system.  

“That families today go through one system and have one application makes their life a lot less cumbersome,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that whatever they choose, they get.”

However, certain key details — such as how the system will handle “overmatching,” a process in which more students than typically show up are assigned to a school to address possible attrition over the summer — appear to still be the subject of some disagreement.

León’s full-throated defense of school choice is sure to surprise some community members, who had expected the former Newark Public Schools principal to rein in the charter sector after years of swift expansion under his state-appointed predecessors. Yet León has been open about his admiration for some of the city’s high-performing charter schools and his disdain for the district’s previously decentralized enrollment system, which favored families with the wherewithal to wait in long lines for coveted district-school seats or to apply separately to multiple charter schools.

Politics also may have played a role in the current system’s survival. In recent days, charter school advocates asked state Sen. Teresa Ruiz — a Newark power broker who is close to León — to help prevent changes to the system that they oppose, according to people in the charter sector.

Newark Enrolls also may have benefited from its relative popularity. A survey of 1,800 people who used the system this year found that 95 percent were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the enrollment process. And a phone survey of 302 Newark voters last month commissioned by the charter sector found that 52 percent of respondents favored the system, while 26 percent opposed it and 21 percent were undecided, according to a summary of the results obtained by Chalkbeat.

Yet charter schools — which now serve about one-third of city students — remain a lightning rod in Newark. Critics say they sap resources from the district while failing to serve their fair-share of needy students. In March, Mayor Ras Baraka called for a halt to their expansion.

Board Member Leah Owens, a former district teacher who is critical of charter schools, argued before Monday’s vote that more was on the line than the fate of the online application system.

“This is about, What is the future of Newark Public Schools going to look like if we continue to legitimize the idea of having privately run public schools?” she said during the meeting. “When we bring these schools into our enrollment system, we are saying that this is OK and that competition will improve the schools.”

Launched in 2014, the so-called “universal enrollment” system allows each family to apply online to up to eight traditional, magnet, or charter schools. A computer algorithm then assigns each student to a single school based on the family’s preferences, available space, and rules that give priority to students who live near schools or have special needs.

In the past, the district has allowed charter schools to specify how many students they want the district to assign them. Most request more students than they have space for to account for the attrition that invariably happens as some families move over the summer or enroll in private schools.

That practice, known as “overmatching,” became a flashpoint in the recent negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools, which must sign an annual agreement to participate in the enrollment system.

León’s side revised the agreement to eliminate overmatching, according to a person involved in the talks. Some charter leaders, worried the change would leave them with empty seats and reduced budgets, considered pulling out of the system.

The threat appears to have worked. The agreement that the board approved Monday still allows for overmatching, according to people in the charter sector. (The district has not made the agreement public, and officials did not respond to a request from Chalkbeat Tuesday to release it.)

“I don’t know anything about how that happened exactly,” said Jess Rooney, founder and co-director of People’s Preparatory Charter School. “All I know is that [León] got the message that that was of great concern, and he did a lot of work to address that concern very quickly.”

Charter leaders celebrated the agreement the school board ratified Monday, which they believe protects overmatching — a process they consider crucial for filling their rosters before classes start.

However, it’s not clear that León shares their interpretation.

In an interview Monday, he said the district would only send as many students to charter schools as they are authorized by the state to serve — even if they request extra students to offset attrition. If charters lose some students over the summer, they can replace them with students from their waitlists, he added.

“The legislature determined that there is a cap that they have,” León said, “and we’re sticking with that.”

Former district officials said that relying on charter schools to fill empty seats with students from their waitlists can disrupt district schools, which may abruptly lose students whom they were assigned. But León said that was not a concern, because charters can only pull students whose top choice had been a charter school.

“They have a right to pull that student because that student is not at their preferred school of choice,” he said. “That’s fine.”

Families can begin applying to schools for next school year on Dec. 3, León said. On Dec. 8, the district will host an admissions fair with representatives from traditional and charter schools.

In the meantime, the board of each charter school that plans to participate in universal enrollment must approve the agreement. Last year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter-school operators signed on.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, said she would defer to the district on “the implementation question” of overmatching. Other charter leaders insisted that the issue had been settled, and overmatching would continue as it has in the past.

Either way, Mason said she expects the same number of charter schools to join this year. She added that she was heartened by León’s remarks at Monday’s board meeting.

“I really do believe he values the options that charter schools give students and families,” she said.

Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.