Questions Remain as Newark District and Charters Work to Reapprove School Application System

PATRICK WALL, CHALKBEAT | OCTOBER 30, 2019 

NJ Spotlight

Newark Schools Supt. Roger León says he’s looking to “move forward.”

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With application season for the next school year quickly approaching, Newark’s district and charter school leaders are racing to resolve their differences over the city’s shared enrollment system.

The two sides have been hammering out changes to an agreement that specifies how the district will operate the computerized system that lets families use a single application to apply to traditional schools and participating charter schools. The Newark school board had been slated to vote on the agreement, which must be approved annually, earlier this month but postponed the vote until this week.

Superintendent Roger León said his team needed more time to address the concerns charter leaders had raised about the enrollment agreement. He promised to reconvene representatives from both sides soon to discuss any disagreements.

“We are in the process of reaching out to [charter schools] — haven’t done that yet — to make sure that they’re aware that we will sit at the table,” León said at the board’s Oct. 15 meeting, adding that it is “very, very good for everyone” if charters participate in the enrollment system. “So we’ll make sure that whatever are the issues that we address them and that we move forward.”

Both sectors stand to benefit if the so-called universal enrollment system continues. Charter schools that choose to participate are listed as options in the system, called Newark Enrolls, which about 12,000 families use each year to apply to schools. In exchange, the district gets some control over the admissions process at charter schools, which are independently operated.

Trust has been tested

District officials note that they pay to manage Newark Enrolls, which is essentially a free service for charter schools. But charters leaders say they must trust that the district will run the system fairly and competently before handing over the keys to their admissions. And, over the past year, their trust has been tested.

First, the district was late sending families their school match letters this spring, prompting questions about whether the new administration was struggling to manage the system.

“It was just very chaotic,” said the enrollment coordinator at an independent charter school.

Those changes, and the frustration they’ve provoked among some charter leaders who say they’ve been given minimal information from the district, form the backdrop of the current negotiations.

At the Oct. 15 board meeting, León said charter leaders expressed concerns about three items in the enrollment agreement but did not provide details. (A district spokesperson did not respond to questions for this story.) Charter leaders have also been reluctant to discuss specifics, citing the ongoing, private negotiations.

However, a draft version of the agreement and interviews with people involved in the talks provide some clues about what’s being discussed. As the Newark school board prepared to vote Tuesday on the agreement and charter school boards vote next month, here are three big questions.

Will families still be able to change schools online?

On Dec. 7, when Newark families can begin choosing schools for the 2020-2021 school year, they will find a brand-new enrollment website.

Officials say the yet-to-launch portal will make enrollment easier for families. But exactly how the new online system will work has been a focus of the district-charter negotiations, according to people involved in the discussions.

One sticking point is how long families will have access to it. In 2017, the district began reopening the enrollment portal after students received their school matches in April. That allowed families who were unhappy with their matches to apply directly to schools with open seats or add their names to waitlists.

However, the new administration ended that practice this summer when it deactivated the old online system. The draft enrollment agreement appears to codify that change: It eliminates language that said the portal would be available to families after school matches are released.

Charter leaders are pushing to ensure the new portal is open to families throughout the year, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

“We are working in partnership with the district to ensure that we’re eliminating any barriers to enrollment for families who want access to great public schools where their children can succeed and thrive,” said a statement from Ryan Hill, CEO of KIPP New Jersey, which operates nearly a dozen charter schools in Newark.

How will the system handle students with special needs?

Proponents of Newark Enrolls say it can be used to ensure high-need students have access to all the city’s public schools: traditional, magnet, and charter.

Since the system launched in 2013, the city’s charter and magnet schools have enrolled more students with special needs, researchers found. Still, traditional schools continue to serve a disproportionate share of students with disabilities and those still learning English.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 16.4% of district students had disabilities and 12% were English learners. By contrast, 11% of Newark charter school students had disabilities and just 1% were English learners.

Critics say one reason for the disparity is that some families believe — or have been told — that charters do not offer the full range of services for students with special needs. The draft enrollment agreement adds a new stipulation that charter schools must “provide appropriate educational programs” to students requiring special education or bilingual services.

However, the document takes the opposite approach to the district-run magnet schools.

Designed for high-achieving students, magnet schools are allowed to select students based on their test scores, grades, and other criteria. (León introduced a new test that provides magnets yet another way to screen applicants.) Partly as a result, Newark’s magnet high schools on average enroll fewer students with special needs than its traditional schools.

In the past, the enrollment agreement said magnet schools still had to adhere to guidelines that give high-need students a boost in the admissions process. But this year’s draft agreement removes that requirement, saying simply that magnet schools “will rank students based on their admissions criteria.”

“It’s a discriminatory system,” said parent activist Denise Cole about the enrollment disparities between Newark’s traditional schools and its charter and magnet schools. “It’s a system that promotes segregation.”

Will charter schools decide the system is worth the risks?

Newark families appear to like the universal enrollment system and the choices it offers.

In 2018, 95% of families who took a survey after using the system said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the process. And, this year, 51% of families who used Newark Enrolls to apply to kindergarten chose charter schools.

But individual charter schools must decide whether the system’s benefits outweigh its costs.

An enrollment manager at one Newark charter said the school was assigned far fewer students this year after the district changed the matching process. To make up for the shortfall, the school called families on its waitlist and asked them to pull out of the schools they were matched with.

“We rely on Newark Enrolls for our students,” said the manager, who like other charter personnel spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the district. “Why even be part of it if it’s not helping us?”

The leader of a different charter school said his main concern has been the León administration’s move toward “less data and less transparency” about enrollment. For instance, the district did not publish school match results this year as it has in the past.

Still, the charter leader said he plans to keep participating in Newark Enrolls, which frees up his school from having to manage its own admissions process. And, he added, it lets families apply to multiple schools in one place.

“We serve the public,” he said. “So you have to look at what benefits families the most.”

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