Some Newark students caught in enrollment tussle

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on September 23, 2016

Ernestine Reed, (left), a Newark parent wipes away tears from her eyes as she tells Phil Seelinger Jr., a Newark Public Schools Advisory Board member, about her difficulty getting a school transfer for her son.


Catalina Orozco was banking on her 5-year-old son attending kindergarten at Newark's Ann Street School this year. She had a neighbor lined up to take the boy to school in the morning and to pick him up in the afternoon because she has serious health issues.

Orozco was beside herself when her son was assigned to Miller Street School, which is across town from her Ironbound home. 

Since school started Sept. 6, she is one of the many parents who have been upset with the district for not allowing them to enroll their children in their first school of choice, assigning the students, instead, to their second choice or another school that the district has selected.

Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed superintendent of the city's public schools, said nearly 2,000 reassignments have been made following parents' requests for a student placement change.

Orozco, unfortunately, wasn't one of them.

Enrollment in Newark schools is facilitated by its Family Support Center, which uses a database to track the number of available seats in each grade for each school in order to place students.

Denise Cole and Yolanda Johnson, two district parents, said they have been talking with other parents who say they are frustrated with the enrollment process. They claim the district has put kids on waiting lists for pre-kindergarten through high school, without an alternate school assignment.

One of these parents is Shante Dupree, who went to Lincoln Elementary School in Newark last week to register her 4-year-old-son for preschool. 

She said school officials told her there was space available, but that she had to register her son at the Family Support Center. 

Dupree said she went to the center, thinking she would be completing the process of enrollment, but that's not what happened.

"They said he was on a waiting list,'' she said. "I'm upset. How do you have slots and now he's on the waiting list?''

Cerf said Dupree's encounter is not typical of how the enrollment process works. He said schools should not tell parents who simply show up at their doors that space is available for their children.  

"Schools often do not have the (data) to convey accurate information,'' he said, only the Family Support Center does.

However, Cerf said that if a parent's preference is not met, their child is put on that school's waiting list. In the meantime, the student is assigned to a different school. He said all students have a school assignment.

In Dupree's case, the situation is different because more than half of the pre-kindergarten programs in the district are handled by private providers, though there is no charge for attendance. 

Cerf said Dupree was told that her public school choices  – Lincoln School and Ivy Hill School – are full and have waiting lists.

She said she wasn't given a list of providers – only a waiting list.

Under the district's Universal Enrollment system, Cerf said, the Family Support Center figures out how best to place students in grades K to 12. Among the considerations are keeping siblings in the same school and placing kids in neighborhood schools.

Ernestine Reed hopes something can be done for her 17-year-old son, who is new to the district. She said he hadn't attended school for two days when they showed up at the Family Support Center on Tuesday, seeking a transfer from Barringer High School because of constant fighting there. 

"He doesn't want to go to school,'' she said.

Reed left the center in tears after officials told her that the teen had to attend Barringer, because that was the school he had been assigned. Reed said she thought the transfer wouldn't be a problem after officials at the Board of Education office explained that her request would be handled by the support center.

The district, Cerf said, generally requires documentation of a safety problem to grant such a transfer request. He said it's not the practice to just change a kid because a child is uncomfortable. But he added that safety transfers have been done when it's been determined that a student has an issue.

Cerf said thousands of the city's students have successfully received school assignments. "The values of this system, I think, are unimpeachable,'' he said.

But for some parents like Orozco, who started the enrollment process last year,  the system hasn't worked so smoothly.

Over the summer, she stood in line at the Family Support Center to appeal her son's placement. Since that didn't work out, she returned Tuesday to the Family Support Center to plead her case again.

"They said, 'There's nothing we can do,' '' Orozco said.

Not to be deterred, she reached out to Cerf during a Board of Education business meeting that night.

"I heard her concern and we're in the process of addressing it,'' he said.

The district is now working with Orozco to place her son in a school closer to her home.

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