Amid overhaul, Newark votes to get rid of online enrollment after the admissions period ends

Under new rules approved this week, Newark families who miss the school application deadline will have to visit any district school to enroll — even if they want to apply to a charter school.

The rules make official the district’s decision this summer to stop letting families enroll online after students receive their school matches in April. Families who want to switch schools or who move to the city over the summer will have to apply to schools in person rather than on a website, as they could in the past.

The rule change is part of the district’s overhaul of the citywide enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, which lets families apply to traditional schools and participating charter schools. The district is launching a new enrollment platform in December and has shifted admissions support from a downtown center to neighborhood schools. 

The district had already adjusted the way it matches students to schools, which some charter school leaders said left them with fewer students. The changes, which are written into the new rules, have some charter leaders mulling — again — whether the benefits of participating in the district-run enrollment system are worth the drawbacks.

“The more they lessen accessibility for parents, the harder it is for charters to justify participation in the system,” said a person in the charter sector who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from the district, which controls Newark Enrolls.

Charter schools that want to continue participating in the system must agree to the new guidelines. As district and charter leaders negotiated the rules in recent weeks, online enrollment became a flash point.

Many families arrive in the city after students are matched with schools in April, or they are not happy with their matched schools. In those cases, charter leaders argue that families should be able to go online to enroll or switch schools. They say that forcing families to ask Newark Public Schools employees to help them apply to charter schools adds an unnecessary middle-man and can result in families receiving incorrect information.

“Every single one of us has stories from the summer of parents saying they went to an NPS school and were told they couldn’t enroll at a charter school because they don’t have seats,” said one charter leader.

District officials have not publicly explained the enrollment change, and the school board did not publicly discuss it Tuesday before voting unanimously for the change (with one abstention). Superintendent Roger León declined to be interviewed and asked that questions be referred to his spokesperson, who did not respond to emailed questions.

The board posted a copy of the enrollment rules on its website ahead of the meeting, but it did not include an amendment related to online enrollment. The board counsel read the amendment out loud before the vote, but activist Denise Cole said the public wasn’t given adequate time to weigh in.

“For items like this, we have a right as the community to have public comment on anything that this board votes on,” Cole told the board. “You are violating our right.”

In private, district officials cited technical limitations of the new platform as a reason for getting rid of online enrollment after the admissions period, according to people who attended a district-charter meeting on Monday. 

Officials also have raised concerns that families could use the online tool to enroll in schools where they don’t belong. For instance, an official said this summer that students could potentially re-enroll in schools from which they had been expelled. Newark Board of Education member Tave Padilla gave another example of families enrolling online at schools that do not offer the special-education or bilingual services their children need.

“The last thing we need to do is match [students] to a school that doesn’t have Spanish classes and force them to learn in English,” Padilla said. “This is just an attempt to make this work for everybody.”

The new enrollment rules approved Tuesday include an amendment saying the district, along with charter schools and the platform vendor, will “explore the possibility” of eventually adding a tool that allows families to enroll online at schools after the admissions period. However, it stipulates that the tool must not conflict with “specialized placements” or “safety transfers,” reflecting officials’ concerns about families enrolling at schools that are not good matches for their children.

Currently, 11 of Newark’s 18 charter school operators choose to participate in the citywide enrollment system. Those that want to continue participating must sign the enrollment guidelines before application season begins on Dec. 7.

Some charter leaders said they believe it may still be possible to continue negotiating with the district over tweaks to the guidelines, which the Newark school board would have to approve. Others have discussed creating a charter-only enrollment system, though it is unclear whether that would be possible in time for the next enrollment cycle. Still others say that a citywide enrollment system remains worth the hassle of working with the district as it spares families from having to submit multiple applications. 

Padilla said he hopes the district and charter schools will continue working together on enrollment.

“I think the last thing anybody wants is to go back to prior administrations where we had charter versus public,” he said. “We’ve got to try to get this right.”