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

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.”