Newark Enrolls

Newark’s new superintendent defended the enrollment system. Now can he make it work?

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark Superintendent Roger León

The first big test for Newark’s new schools chief was ensuring that families had a way to apply to schools. His next assignment: making sure the enrollment system works.

Superintendent Roger León, who began in July, passed the first test last month. After hashing out an agreement with charter-school leaders, he convinced the Newark school board to retain the city’s 5-year-old enrollment system for another year. The system, called “Newark Enrolls,” lets families use a single form to apply to most district-run or charter schools rather than filling out separate applications — a point León emphasized when asking reluctant board members to vote for keeping the controversial system.

On Monday, families could begin using the system to apply to schools for the coming academic year — marking the start of the next test for the new administration. Already, signs have emerged of the challenges ahead.

The district has not yet published a new enrollment guide with updated information about each school, though officials say it is coming. More pressingly, León has yet to announce a new head of the enrollment office, whose leaders he ousted during a central-office shakeup.

Charter leaders are paying close attention. Just weeks ago, when it was still unclear whether the board would vote to maintain Newark Enrolls, the sector hired one of the district’s former enrollment chiefs to develop contingency plans for a charter-only enrollment system, according to a charter memo obtained by Chalkbeat.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, said the sector was simply doing its “due diligence” to prepare for the possibility that Newark Enrolls could be scrapped. Now that it has been preserved, she said, she expects 13 of the city’s 18 charter-school operators to participate.

She added that their focus now is on how the new administration manages the system, which more than 12,000 families rely on each year to apply to more than 70 schools.

“It’s going to be a steep learning curve,” she said. “We have to be patient.”

The application period for the 2019-20 school year began Monday and continues through Feb. 15. Then a computerized system will match each student to one school based on the family’s selections, available space, and rules that give preference to certain students. Students should receive their matches by April 15.

In the past, the district has published a thick school directory to help families pick schools. Last year’s 116-page guidebook include each school’s state test results, attendance rate, and available seats, along with details about its extracurricular activities and partnerships.

Mason said she thought the book might have been delayed by negotiations between the district and charter leaders over the cross-sector enrollment agreement, which dragged on for several extra weeks this year. It was during those negotiations that the sector hired Kate Fletcher, the district’s former executive director of enrollment, to devise plans for a backup enrollment system, according to the memo.

Charter-school leaders said district officials told them they would receive one-page fact sheets about their schools to pass out at a citywide enrollment fair this Saturday. A district spokeswoman said families would receive “a guide of schools and services” at the fair.

Tave Padilla, the school board member who heads the committee that oversees enrollment, said Tuesday he was surprised to learn that the guidebook had not yet been published or posted online.

“I’m going to call NPS and ask where is that book,” he said, using an acronym for the district. “That’s very important.”

The guide is a tool for families as they apply to up to eight schools among the dozens of traditional, magnet, and charter-school options. Stacy Raheem, a staffer at Unified Vailsburg Services Organization, a West Ward community organization, said she relied on the book last year when she helped about 40 parents apply to kindergarten.

“It had different things in it that would let parents make a more informed decision,” she said.

But an employee at another preschool, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to talk to the press, said parents could manage without the directory. They can attend the enrollment fair, research schools online, or ask friends or school workers for recommendations, she said.

“All of our parents here are word-of-mouth referrals,” she added.

The district’s enrollment office has been in a state of flux since León became superintendent.

His first move as schools chief was to force out 31 top officials and administrators, including Fletcher and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, the former enrollment chief. The board blocked their firings, fearing disruptions to enrollment, but both still decided to leave.

Their departure appears to have rattled the charter sector. Charter representatives negotiated a provision into the new enrollment deal saying the district must maintain “the quality and quantity of personnel necessary” to effectively operate the enrollment system.

For now, most charter leaders are waiting and carefully watching.

Dina Velez, principal of Newark Educators’ Community Charter School in the Central Ward, said the enrollment process appears to be running smoothly so far and the enrollment office staff has been helpful.

“No system is perfect,” she said, but added, “I haven’t had a negative experience.”

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.”