Document Delays

When Newark students want to move from charter to district schools, data does not always follow

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Science Park is one of Newark's selective magnet schools. The schools have sometimes had trouble getting transcripts and other documents from charter schools when their students apply to magnet schools.

As students race to apply to some of Newark’s top high schools before Friday’s deadline, one group of applicants may be at a disadvantage — charter school students.

In past years, the district’s selective “magnet” high schools have occasionally had trouble obtaining transcripts and test scores for students in certain charter schools, according to current and former district and charter employees. In one instance, a family had so much difficulty getting the necessary records from their charter school that they appealed to the Newark Board of Education for help, leading a board member to personally intervene.

A former Newark Public Schools official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said most charter schools eventually provide any information that families leave off their applications, such as grades or test scores. However, one large charter school network — KIPP New Jersey — was “very slow to respond” to requests for information and seemed to be “dragging their feet,” the official said.

Some critics suspect that charter networks like KIPP, which have their own high schools, may want to avoid losing top students to other schools. But it’s also possible that large networks like KIPP, which operates eight schools in Newark, cannot always keep up with the data requests it receives.

Whether intentionally or not, charter schools can impede their students’ path into the city’s competitive magnet schools if they fail to provide the necessary documents.

Charter schools “are not being held responsible for doing what they’re supposed to,” said Juwana Montgomery, a former KIPP employee whose twin sons attend Science Park, a district magnet school. She said she believes some of the document delays are intentional: “If they let all the best and brightest students leave their network, that lowers their numbers.”

KIPP New Jersey CEO Ryan Hill said he had not heard any complaints about delays in submitting information for KIPP students who apply to high schools outside the network, but said he would look into it. He disputed the claim that the network tried to prevent students from leaving in order to fill its own high school, Newark Collegiate Academy, which he said more than 80 percent of KIPP eighth-graders choose to attend.

“The notion that we’re trying to block their options or anything like that is completely antithetical to who we are,” Hill said. “We believe they should pick the schools that are best for them.”

However, he added, KIPP believes that “for most of our kids, our high school is the best option.”

All but one of the district’s six magnet schools decide which students to admit based on their grades, attendance records, and state test scores. (Arts High School bases its decisions on an audition or review of student artwork.) This year, the schools will also consider the results of a new admissions test that students will take this week.

Families of children in district schools do not have to worry about submitting grades and scores when they apply to magnet schools — that information is already in the district’s database. But families coming from charter schools must input the data themselves on the district’s enrollment website and upload verifying documents, such as transcripts and test score summaries. Families that do not have access to those documents must request them from the charter schools or ask the schools to complete that part of the application for them.

When families submit incomplete applications, the district tries to track down the missing data. “We followed up extensively with both families and students’ schools to ensure we received as complete and accurate information as possible,” a district enrollment official wrote in a memo to the school board last year. Magnet schools are asked to reconsider students with incomplete applications if their information is later submitted, according to the memo.

The magnet schools themselves may also request missing information. However, employees at three magnet schools said it can be difficult to get some charter schools to submit the necessary documents, which the employees attributed to the schools wanting to hold onto their students.

“They’re not eager to release them,” said Edith Battles, a school clerk at Arts High School. “Who wants to let go of a good student?”

Many Newark charter schools do not go beyond eighth grade, leaving them no reason not to help their students apply to district high schools. However, several charter networks include high schools with seats to fill, giving them an incentive to retain those students. 

Last year, KIPP’s Team Academy middle school held an information session for eighth-grade families to sell them on KIPP’s high school, according to Montgomery, the school’s former operations manager. At the meeting, staffers compared the outcomes of KIPP high school graduates with those of a low-performing district high school, Montgomery said. (In Newark, KIPP high school graduates are more likely than their traditional school counterparts to earn college degrees, but less likely than magnet school graduates to do so, according to a recent study.)

Hill, the KIPP New Jersey CEO, said the network simply provides factual information to families about its high school — the same way as other district and charter schools that try to recruit students. He added that KIPP staffers also write recommendation letters for students who choose to apply to private schools.

Tommy Luna, an eighth-grade math teacher at KIPP’s Rise Academy middle school, said his school gives students time to research different high schools. Students are encouraged to look at the schools’ graduation rates, Advanced Placement classes, and extracurricular activities. Most students end up choosing KIPP’s high school, Luna said, but others opt for private, county-run, or magnet schools.

“We’re going to support our kids whatever they choose,” he said.

public records

After 10 months, the education department released Richard Carranza’s briefing memos. Read them here.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Chancellor Carranza visits a dual language class at Brighter Choice Community School.

When Richard Carranza took the helm of city’s education department last April, he was handed a sprawling bureaucracy of over 1,800 schools, 1.1 million students, and 130,000 employees.

He also got at least 21 pages of documents outlining the history and current status of the city’s flagship education initiatives.

That’s according to the education department, which shared half of those pages last week in response to a 10-month-old public records request about the materials used to bring Carranza up to speed in more than a dozen areas from special education to universal pre-kindergarten.

The response came after a series of delays that the department has pledged to cease.

The documents represent just one tool officials used to help Carranza understand the nation’s largest school system, and don’t offer a complete picture of the information he received. His schedule reflects numerous meetings that likely offered more detailed briefings.

The department also withheld nearly half of the requested documents. Officials said in a letter that state law allows them to redact briefing materials that include “opinions, suggestions, recommendations, advice, ideas, plans, impressions, exhortations and other information not containing or constituting statistical or factual tabulations or data, instructions to staff that affect the public, or final agency policy or determinations.” About 10 pages of documents were redacted, said department spokesman Doug Cohen.

Much of the information the department did share is boilerplate, similar to language used in press releases and the department’s website. The documents describe efforts to include students with disabilities with peers in general education classrooms, changes to certain high school admissions procedures to promote diversity, and a program to to provide additional counselors in two needy districts.

Some of the most detailed information centered on special education, including budget breakdowns and descriptions of several different initiatives. Yet other high-profile programs received surprisingly little mention: Just two sentences of the briefing documents are devoted to the mayor’s much-debated $770 million turnaround program for struggling schools. After nine days on the job, Carranza concluded the Renewal program lacked a clear “theory of action.”

The education department took almost 10 months to give Chalkbeat the documents, issuing form letters to extend their own deadlines on three separate occasions. After ignoring an Oct. 1 deadline to provide the records, the department did not provide a new deadline, and ultimately produced the records on Feb. 14, three days after Chalkbeat filed an appeal.

Department officials promised to stop delaying records requests after a lawsuit from the New York Post. At the time, officials said they would stop repeatedly sending form letters extending their own deadlines in favor of more realistic estimates.

For years, the education department has been among the least responsive city agencies. A Chalkbeat analysis found that in the year between April 2015 and April 2016, the department’s average response time to public records requests was 103 days. By contrast, it took 296 days for officials to provide Carranza’s briefing materials.

Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, said the education department’s process in response to Chalkbeat’s request violates the state’s open records law.

“An agency cannot engage in delay after delay after delay,” he said.

Cohen, the education department spokesman, acknowledged problems with the city’s response.

“We’re committed to a transparent FOIL process that serves the public efficiently and effectively, and are working to improve timeliness of responses,” he wrote in an email. “We should’ve responded more quickly and provided more updates about this request.”

Here is the complete set of records provided by the education department:

Name Changes?

Frederick Douglass is safe, but Ben Carson still up for a potential name change in Detroit’s district

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Benjamin Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, on a visit to the Detroit high school that was named for him.

The Detroit school district will hold meetings next week to get input on potential name changes for three schools, including the school named after Ben Carson, the controversial Detroit native and renowned pediatric surgeon who is now part of President Trump’s cabinet.

But two other schools that were being looked at — including one many thought could be renamed to honor the late Aretha Franklin — are no longer under consideration for potential name changes after the district reviewed survey results.

The three schools moving ahead include the Benjamin Carson School for Science and Medicine, Harms Elementary School, and Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy. These are the times and dates of the meetings at those schools:

  • Ferguson: 5 p.m., Feb. 27, 2750 Selden
  • Carson: 6 p.m., Feb. 28, 571 Mack Avenue
  • Harms: 8 a.m., March 1, 2400 Central Street

“The community meeting will allow stakeholders to see the survey results and provide input on proposed new names,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

The two schools no longer being considered are the Detroit School of Arts and Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men. Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the district, said surveying showed there wasn’t enough support to continue moving ahead.

The process for potentially changing the names of the schools began last summer, when the district’s board of education approved a policy that spelled out guidelines for renaming schools.

The first step is requesting a name change for a school. That request can be made by a school board member, the superintendent, a School Advisory Council or more than half of the student body.

The second step is for any request to come before the school board, which then must decide whether to move ahead with seeking public comment about the proposal. The board did so in November.

The third step is for surveys and public meetings to be held to determine if enough interest exists for changing a name. Frederick Douglass and the school of the arts were both dropped after survey results showed there wasn’t enough support for a name change.

But surveys conducted at Carson, Harms and Ferguson showed more support.

When the school of arts was included on the list of schools that could see name changes, many assumed it could be named after Franklin. Vitti and some board members had previously floated the idea of naming a school after the treasured Detroit singer after she died last year.

The district’s renaming policy spells out the scenarios with which a school’s name could be changed.

A school is eligible for renaming if it was newly built or redesigned, the name of a school does not reflect the current school population, the community near the school requests a name change that more closely aligns with the history of the locality, or information newly discovered about the current name of the school is negative in nature.

While the district is working through potentially changing the name of three schools, it is also working on the naming of two other schools: The new high school that will be located on the campus of Marygrove College, and a new Latin school. Both are set to open in time for the next school year.

The potential name change at Carson has garnered widespread attention, given the school is named after the Detroit native who is now a key member of Trump’s administration. Former board member LaMar Lemmons, whose term ended in December, had been a key backer of the Carson name change. Among his issues with the name: A state-appointed emergency manager made the decision to name the school after Carson with no input from the community, and he said Carson’s political views are different than most Detroiters.

As for the other schools:

“The principal at Harms asked for the consideration of a name change to better market the school and represent the community,” Vitti said.

Parents and educators at the school have long discussed changing the name of that school out of concern that the literal meaning of the word “harms” would turn parents away. 

Vitti said the name change at Ferguson is being considered to coincide with a change in focus. The district first discussed changing the name of Catherine Ferguson last year when it announced plans to put an alternative school into the Catherine Ferguson building. The building had previously been home to a celebrated school for teen moms that closed a few years ago. It reopened this school year as a school for students with discipline issues.

Monique Bryant, the president of the parent-teacher association at Frederick Douglass, has been critical of the push to change the name at her son’s school.

“I’m ecstatic about the fact that Frederick Douglass has been removed from the list,” Bryant said. But, she said, she’s still not happy because she doesn’t believe the district has done enough to get input from parents about the process.