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.

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”