'Not appropriate'

Newark charter school faces firestorm after kicking out students for dress code violations

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Marion P. Thomas Charter School

A Newark charter high school faced a storm of online outrage this week after it forced dozens of students onto the street on the first day of class due to minor uniform infractions, such as lacking belts or wearing shoes with white soles instead of black.

After the students were sent out of Marion P. Thomas Charter School on Monday, a community activist found them idling at a nearby park. He then confronted school staffers about the incident; videos of the confrontation that were posted online have been viewed more than 560,000 times and generated hundreds of angry comments.

“Why would you kick a child 13 or 14 years old out into the streets?” said Thomas “Afrika” Ibiang, the activist who confronted the officials, in an interview Friday. “It makes no sense unless you see those people as less than.”

Founded in 1999 by Newark’s historic New Hope Baptist Church, Marion P. Thomas now enrolls about 1,600 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. With a student population that is 94 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic, the school describes itself as “the largest minority led, independently operated free public charter school in New Jersey.”

About a third of Newark students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. While widespread and popular with many Newark families, charter schools remain controversial. Critics have attacked their strict discipline policies, and officials — including Mayor Ras Baraka — have called for a halt to the charter sector’s rapid expansion.

According to Marion P. Thomas officials, parents were informed about the dress code through fliers, automated phone calls, and a family orientation meeting before classes began on Aug. 27. (The school was only in session from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the first week.) When some of the network’s high school students arrived that morning without the proper uniform — khaki pants, blue shirts with the school logo, belts, and black shoes — they were told to leave until their uniforms met all the requirements.

After they were turned away, many of the students ventured to a park across the street from the school’s Central Ward campus. Ibiang, who runs a nonprofit called Ma’at Youth Services with his wife, was leading a youth basketball camp at the park. He said he soon saw roughly 50 students congregating at the park, sitting on benches or playing basketball to pass the time.

He then asked a boy in a blue Marion P. Thomas polo shirt what happened, according to a video Ibiang recorded on his phone. The video, which was posted on Facebook, has been viewed over 560,000 times.

PHOTO: Facebook
A screenshot of a video taken by Thomas “Afrika” Ibiang showing a Marion P. Thomas Charter School student who was turned away from school because his shoes were not completely black.

“Why aren’t you in school?” Ibiang asks the boy.

“Because I got white on my sneakers,” he replies. The video shows the boy’s black sneakers have partially white soles.

“And they say because you have white on your shoes you can’t get into school?” Ibiang says, which the boy confirms.

“That’s crazy,” Ibiang says.

Other videos show Ibiang asking employees in the school’s main office why the students were sent away. As Ibiang raises his voice in frustration, the employees ask whether he has a “scholar” who attends the school and why he is recording the interaction.

“To keep track, to have evidence,” he replies. “I don’t trust people who kick our kids into the street.”

The widely viewed videos have generated hundreds of comments. Some of the commenters sided with the school, saying parents are responsible for making sure their children adhere to the uniform policy. But others said they were horrified that the school would deny students a day of learning simply because they were out of uniform.

“Education don’t matter to them,” one woman wrote on the school’s Facebook page. “Only the control of the students do.”

Malika Berry said her son, Sahir Minatee, a former 10th-grader at Marion P. Thomas, was one of the students turned away Monday because his shoes were not completely black. She said she only learned that Sahir had been kept out of school through online messages, and was never notified by the school.

“It’s illegal,” she said. “Why didn’t nobody inform me that my son was kicked out of school?”

School officials said they called the families of students who were sent out Monday.

When Sahir returned to school Tuesday, she said school employees informed him that his family had not submitted the necessary paperwork to verify they live in the city. (Charter schools must show that their students live within the district in order to receive state funds.)

Berry says she tried to present residency documents to the school this week, but they said the deadline had passed and she would have to re-enroll through the district, which handles both charter and traditional school admissions. After visiting the district enrollment office, her son was assigned to West Side High School, she said.

“I haven’t eaten, I haven’t slept,” Berry said. “My son is stressed out; he has to go to a new school.”

Misha Simmonds, Marion P. Thomas’ interim chief school administrator, declined to discuss Sahir’s situation specifically.

He said the school began notifying families in the spring that they had to re-verify their residency in order to remain enrolled. The school continued to call and write families over the summer until the enrollment deadline in mid-July, Simmonds said. After that, about 75 students were “dis-enrolled,” and their families were informed by phone or letter, he said.

Regarding Monday’s incident, he said the school told parents about the dress code before classes began. Still, officials soon recognized that they made a mistake by forcing students onto the streets if they were not fully in uniform, Simmonds said.

“We acknowledge there could have been safety issues with students turned away from school and ending up in the park, and that’s not what our intent was,” he said. “Safety is our ultimate priority.”

On Tuesday, the school did not force out any students who were not in uniform. Instead, the school helped the students correct any dress code violations by giving them belts or black socks or using black tape to cover any non-black parts of their shoes, Simmonds said.

He also sent families a letter on Tuesday explaining that the uniform policy is meant to foster unity, “bridge socioeconomic differences between students,” and prepare them for the workplace, but that the school would no longer turn away students who are out of uniform.

“It’s important that we hold students to a high standard across all areas,” he told Chalkbeat, including in their dress, behavior, and academics. “But we acknowledge that turning away students was not appropriate.”

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”