Newark schools face threat of lower enrollment as applications plunge

In the foreground, a student wearing a pink backpack stands behind an adult in a blue-striped shirt as they face Malcolm X Shabazz High School in the background.
District data shows a sharp decline in the number of applicants to Newark schools, raising the possibility of a steep enrollment decline in the fall. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

The number of applicants to Newark schools plummeted by nearly 34% this year, according to district data, raising the possibility of a steep enrollment decline this fall.

About 4,000 fewer students applied for seats in the most recent admissions cycle than in the previous year, according to the district’s count, which includes applications to traditional schools and most charter schools. In total, roughly 7,800 students submitted applications through a system called Newark Enrolls this winter, down from nearly 11,800 applicants the previous year.

Schools still have time to recruit students before next school year, so the application slump does not necessarily mean enrollment will be down. District officials predicted that students who didn’t apply will still show up to school this fall. 

Newark Public Schools spokesperson Valerie Merritt attributed the decline to the many disruptions families faced during the pandemic, which might have distracted them from applying to schools. 

“From maintaining a healthy home, worrying about the loss of life, job loss, and everything in between, there are numerous reasons, I’m sure, why applications were down significantly this year,” she said in a statement. “Families had to prioritize their daily lives and what they gave attention to at the time.”

Another possibility is that some families put off applying during the initial application period, which went from November through January, because Newark’s COVID case count was still alarmingly high. As cases dwindle and the vaccination rate rises, families who were hesitant to enroll last winter might feel comfortable doing so this summer.

About 40% of Newark residents are fully vaccinated, up from 31% about a month ago, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. Statewide, about 68% of adults are fully vaccinated.

Charter school advocates, who say applications to those schools are down this year, point to another possibility: that a recent change to the admission process deterred some families from applying.

The Newark school district, which manages the Newark Enrolls system, required families to submit residency documents before they could apply to charter schools this cycle. Previously, families had to supply the documents only after applying.

Charter school advocates say some families were unable to enroll because they couldn’t locate or upload the necessary documents, such as utility bills and lease agreements.

“It’s no surprise that this is happening,” said Harry Lee, president and CEO of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, about the drop in applications. “NPS has put unilateral, undue, extra-legal residency requirements on public charter school parents in the middle of a pandemic.”

Public school enrollment fell nationwide last year as some families kept their children out of school or opted for private or homeschooling options. In New Jersey, enrollment dropped by 3% to its lowest level in 20 years.

Newark appeared to avoid the exodus. The district’s enrollment dipped only slightly last school year, to just over 36,000 students, according to the state’s fall enrollment data. And the city’s charter schools added more than 1,000 students, reaching a combined enrollment of about 20,200, according to an analysis by Lee’s organization.

Now, Newark’s streak of stable enrollment could end if more families don’t sign up for the coming school year.

One challenge could be lingering hesitancy about sending children back to classrooms in a city that has borne a disproportionate share of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. Just 40% of district families opted for in-person learning this spring, and some might balk at Gov. Phil Murphy’s requirement that all students return to classrooms this fall.

To combat such fears and convince wary families to enroll, the Newark district is publicizing its safety precautions for the fall, which include continued mask wearing and social distancing, Merritt said. Some school leaders are also organizing family events this summer, and the district is hosting vaccination clinics for eligible children, she added.

Merritt also made the case that the application decline could actually be good news if it turns out that fewer current students applied to change schools, which can disrupt learning.

“Parental decisions to stay in the same school from year to year may ultimately buttress the academic and social/emotional support systems” that the district put in place to combat student learning loss, Merritt said in an email.

Chalkbeat could not compare the number of new applicants to transfers because the district denied a request for detailed enrollment data.

Difficulties with the new enrollment process were also reported by some preschool directors, including DeNiqua Matias, executive director of the Clinton Hill Community & Early Childhood Center. She said her staffers guided families through the kindergarten enrollment process this winter, but they could do little to help parents who didn’t have the required documents.

“It was causing issues for our families,” she said. “We had quite a few families that started the application process but never finished.”

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