A growing sector

Over 40 percent of Newark students could attend charter schools within five years. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

In 2008, less than 10 percent of Newark students attended charter schools. Today, one in three does.

After a decade of explosive growth, Newark’s charter schools have morphed from a sideshow to a parallel school system. Fueled by former Gov. Chris Christie and deep-pocketed donors, their expansion offered thousands of families new school options — with more-established charters sometimes vastly outperforming their district counterparts. But the spreading sector also ensured the demise of some neighborhood schools, blew a hole in the district budget, and often provoked ferocious resistance to further charter encroachment, which helped propel Ras Baraka into City Hall.

Note: Figures exclude pre-K and include non-resident charter students. Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research, Julia Sass Rubin/Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Policy. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

The charter proliferation is far from over. Within five years, nearly 27,000 students who go to school in Newark — well over 40 percent of the total — could be attending charter schools, according to a projection by Rutgers University associate professor Julia Sass Rubin based on school expansions approved by the state.

Yet whether those projections are met will depend on demand by families, charter-school capacity, and perhaps even the political climate. Still, some district-school advocates are already bracing for the worst — including more school closures and potential service reductions — if the charter sector keeps expanding.

“It’s growing at an alarming rate,” said school board member Reginald Bledsoe. “It’s going to have an impact.”

Today, about 33 percent of students who attend Newark schools — or roughly 17,000 students — go to charter schools. (More than 1,300 of those students live outside Newark, since some charters can enroll students beyond the district.)

The state has signed off on nearly 7,000 more charter seats to be available by the 2022-23 school year, according to state data compiled by Sass Rubin, who teaches at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Policy. If all those seats are filled and district enrollment stays flat at about 34,200 students, then the share of students who go to school in Newark and attend charters could climb as high as 44 percent.

That projection — which excludes pre-kindergarten students — is based on several assumptions.

First, it assumes the district’s enrollment will remain steady — which would require the district to add new students to replace those who decamp for charters, as it has in recent years.

Second, this scenario assumes that existing charters remain open. But the state education department forced the closure of three low-performing Newark charters last year and another in January. (Those schools are excluded from the enrollment count.)

Finally, it assumes the sector will reach the full enrollment permitted by the state — which hasn’t historically been the case. This year, about 85 percent of state-approved Newark charter seats are filled, according to data provided by Sass Rubin, who is working on a statewide analysis that compares charter approvals to subsequent enrollments.

“Just because they’ve been approved,” she said, “doesn’t mean they will actually happen.”

Critics say the excess seats suggest the supply of charter schools has started to outstrip demand among families, and that charters are requesting more slots than they need.

But charter proponents push back against that claim. They point to city enrollment data showing that 49 percent of Newark families applying to kindergarten last year listed a charter school as their top choice.

Demand was highest for North Star Academy and KIPP New Jersey, which each operate several schools in Newark. More than 550 families listed KIPP as their first choice for kindergarten though only 448 seats were available across the network, which includes eight Newark schools. (Demand was also high for several district schools, including Ann Street — which had the third highest share of families rank it first — a sign that parents may care more about schools’ track records and reputations than who runs them.)

Charter operators offer several reasons why they may not fill all the seats they applied for.

Some said it made sense to stockpile extra seats during the charter-friendly Christie administration, under which the number of charter students doubled. “While the getting is good, and Christie is approving just about anything that sounds stable, why don’t we just go and apply for additional charters so we can have those in our pocket?” asked one charter leader, describing the thinking of some of his school’s board members.

Others said growth plans sometimes bump up against human limitations. In order to open a new school, charter operators must first find an ample supply of strong leaders — a challenge that can bedevil district and charter schools alike.

“When we haven’t opened in the past, it’s been because we didn’t yet have a principal that we thought was ready,” said KIPP New Jersey CEO Ryan Hill, adding that incoming principals at KIPP go through a yearlong training and school-planning process. (KIPP currently serves about 4,100 students in Newark, but has been approved to grow to 7,800 students.)

Another obstacle is securing space, as charter schools do not get state money as district schools typically do for facilities. Charters may also face political resistance: In 2012, the Newark school board voted against plans to lease four district buildings to charters — though at that time the board’s votes were non-binding.

Newark’s charter sector grew rapidly over the past decade. Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

Now that the board has regained control of the school system, it’s possible charters could have a harder time securing space in district buildings. Bledsoe, the board member, said he supports parents who choose charter schools — still, he would rather reserve district buildings for district schools.

“I don’t believe in the idea of allowing network schools to expand and we’re not expanding,” he said.

If Newark’s charters do keep spreading, more money will flow out of the district’s budget.

This school year, the district will transfer about $237 million — or a quarter of its budget — to charter schools, up from $60 million in the 2008-09 school year. Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed boosting Newark’s budget by 5 percent next year, but lawmakers must still sign off.

Newark Public Schools spokesman Paul Nedeau said the district will be able to keep investing in its schools if the state sends more money its way. He said the district is focused on “continuing to improve the quality of all schools in Newark” — charter and district — and that “the last few years show that with collaboration and thoughtful management this is an achievable goal.”

Hill of KIPP New Jersey agreed. He said his network was committed to being a “good neighbor” to the district, which was one reason why it lobbied the state for more school aid alongside Newark officials — including Mayor Baraka, who has shown a willingness to partner with the charter sector since taking office.

But even as KIPP tries to ease its impact on the district, “our first responsibility is to the families of Newark and to give them good options,” Hill said.

“If there are families who are still asking for KIPP schools that don’t have access to them,” he added, “then we’ll continue to grow.”

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Future of Schools

Indiana lawmakers are bringing back a plan to expand takeover for Gary and Muncie schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s official: Lawmakers are planning to re-introduce a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts when they come back May 14 for a one-day special session.

Indiana Republican leaders said they believe the plan, which would give control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and strip power from the Gary school board, creates opportunities for both districts to get on the right track after years of poor decision-making around finances.

“Two state entities year after year ignored requests from the legislature to get their fiscal health in order,” said Senate President David Long. “We understand there’s going to be some politics associated with it.”

But Indiana Democrats strongly oppose the takeovers, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat from Austin, said bringing back the “heinous” takeover plan is too complicated to be dealt with in one day. Democrats had cheered when the bill unceremoniously died last month after lawmakers ran out of time during the regular session and lambasted Republican for calling for an extension to revisit it.

“This is not a thing that can be idly approved without full consideration,” Goodin said. “Because you are talking about the latest step to take the education of our children out of the hands of local school boards and parents and placing it under the control of Big Brother.”

But lawmakers’ push to expand district takeovers come as the state’s education officials are stepping back from taking control of individual schools. In this case, as with last year’s unprecedented bill that took over Gary schools, finances appear to be the driving motivation behind lawmakers’ actions, not academics. Typically, state takeover of schools has come as a consequence for years of failing state letter grades.

Gary schools have struggled for decades to deal with declining enrollment, poor financial management and poor academic performance. Although the Muncie district hasn’t seen the same kind of academic problems, it has been sharply criticized for mishandling a $10 million bond issue.

“All I had to hear is that a $10 million capital bond was used for operating expenses,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said, since those funds are intended to make improvements to buildings. “Fiscal irresponsibility is paramount, but also fiscal irresponsibility translates to educational irresponsibility as well.”

Bosma said that Ball State and Gary officials were on board with resurrecting House Bill 1315. Another part of the bill would develop an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

The provisions in the bill would only apply to public school districts, but other types of schools, including online charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, have had recent financial situations that have raised serious questions and even led to closure.

Bosma said those schools have their own fiscal accountability systems in place, but recent attempts to close gaps in state charter law and have private schools with voucher students submit annual reports to the state have gone mostly nowhere.

Both Bosma and Long said their plan to reconsider five bills during the special session, including House Bill 1315, had passed muster withGov. Eric Holcomb. But district takeover was not mentioned in Friday’s statement from Holcomb, nor did he say it was one of the urgent issues lawmakers should take up when he spoke to reporters in mid-March.

Instead, he reiterated his support for getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund for Muncie schools and directing $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

match day

On high school match day, two-thirds of Newark eighth graders want magnet schools — but far fewer will get them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Keyon Lambert waited a long time for April 20th to arrive — the day when he and hundreds of other Newark students are discovering which high schools they’ve been matched with.

Long before this day, Keyon, an eighth-grader at Brick Avon Academy in the South Ward, spent hours poring over the test scores, class offerings, and graduation rates of the city’s high schools. As he awaited the results this week, he explained why he had invested so much time and thought into his application.

“If I went to a bad high school and got distracted — time flies by,” he said. “Senior year, I [might not] even know what I want to be, what college I want to go to. I probably miss out on a whole bunch of stuff. I’d probably be a dope by then.”

“But if I go to a good school,” he added, “I’ll be able to get my education and focus on the other things. Nothing, basically, will distract me.”

Newark students can apply to as many as eight high schools — traditional, magnet, or charter — through the district’s universal online application, and to the county-run vocational schools through a separate application. While the city has long offered competitive magnet schools alongside its traditional “comprehensive” high schools, the online system has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools.

Still, each student only gets one match. And, as Keyon understood, some options are better than others. That leads many students to compete for the limited seats at the most selective schools, whose enrollments often do not match the overall demographic makeup of the district — a trend the school board has been probing.

Chalkbeat spoke to more than a dozen eighth-graders this week as high-school match day approached to understand their decisions. We’ll be checking back with some of them after they receive their matches Friday.

“There’s going to be a lot of tears,” said Jahida Gilbert, another Brick Avon eighth-grader, earlier this week.

The district’s six magnet high schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talent, are by far the most popular option — and the most exclusive. Last year, more than two-thirds of incoming ninth-graders ranked a magnet school first on their applications, according to a new report on the city’s enrollment system. But just 31 percent of students across all grades who rank magnets first are actually admitted, and only 24 percent of Newark high schoolers wind up attending one of the coveted schools.

At the other end of the spectrum are the district’s eight comprehensive high schools. Unlike magnets, they cannot weed out students with low scores or poor attendance — they must admit anyone they have room for, or use a random lottery if they are oversubscribed. Partly as a result, they tend to serve far more students with disabilities, have many more students who are chronically absent, and post much lower test scores.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brianna Padilla and Ahad Hall, eighth-graders at Hawthorne Avenue School.

About 10 percent of Newark students opt into one of the four technical-vocational schools run by Essex County, where they can join peers from other towns and study trades ranging from culinary arts to engineering while also earning a high-school diploma. Like the magnets, the “vo-tech” schools screen applicants. They look at students’ grades, test scores, disciplinary and attendance records, and the results of an entrance essay and interview.

Keyon ruled out the comprehensive high schools. But he did go for an interview at a vocational school, where the interviewer tried to assess Keyon’s personality by asking whether he’d rather be a lion or a bear. “I picked a lion because you could set a good example for others,” he explained.

He also explored a third category — charter high schools. Publicly funded but independently operated, those schools cannot screen applicants. However, several are affiliated with lower-grade charter schools that act as feeder schools, leaving few spots for other incoming ninth-graders. The charter high school Keyon applied to, Great Oaks Legacy, which includes pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade, reported having no available seats for students entering ninth-grade last year.

During his search, Keyon consulted his parents, who told him: “Be mature and pick the wise decision,” he said. Finally, he decided to apply to the vocational school (Essex County Newark Tech), along with two magnet schools (Science Park and American History) and two charter schools (KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, in addition to Great Oaks Legacy).

Noon on April 20 was this year’s appointed hour, when families could start viewing their children’s matches — for elementary as well as high schools — on the enrollment website. The district also sends letters to students’ homes and gives copies to schools to hand out. Last school year, 41 percent of incoming ninth-graders were matched to their first choice, while 70 percent got one of their top three picks.

Brick Avon’s principal, Charity Haygood, said students shouldn’t despair if they don’t get into one of the most competitive schools. Some high-achieving students flourish at the city’s comprehensive schools, which also boast impressive sports teams and arts programs.

Still, Haygood is troubled by the knowledge that some of her students will be shut out of the selective schools where they applied. She hates to think that a less-than-stellar report card one year or a poor showing on the state tests — perhaps because of an upheaval at home — can determine the course of a student’s high-school career, and maybe well beyond that.

“The idea that we — at the age of 12 or 13 — tell a child their destiny. How dare we?” she said. “That’s devastating.”

Out of about 14,400 students who attended a public high school in Newark this school year, 45 percent go to one of the district’s traditional high schools and 24 percent attend a magnet school. Another 21 percent are enrolled in one of the city’s seven charter schools with high-school grades.

While each high school has its strengths and weaknesses, academic performance varies sharply across sectors, with the magnet sector on average outscoring the charter sector on state exams — and both sectors outperforming the comprehensive schools. One factor that impacts their performance is the share of students with disabilities they serve.

Among comprehensive high schools, 22 percent of incoming ninth-graders require special-education services, compared to 13 percent in magnet schools and 15 percent in charter schools, according to the new report on the city’s enrollment system by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and MarGrady Research.

One exception is People’s Preparatory Charter School, where 33 percent of ninth-graders have disabilities, according to founder and co-director Jessica Rooney.

“Our whole job is to make sure that we’re decreasing or eliminating barriers to a high-quality education,” she said.

Haneefah Webster with her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School.

To help families sort through all the options each year, the district publishes a 115-page guidebook, hosts two school fairs each year, and created an informational video on the website where families can apply to most district or charter schools using a single application. (The vo-tech schools use a separate system.)

Students also lean heavily on their teachers and guidance counselors to make sense of all the options. At Sussex Avenue School in the Central Ward, seventh-grade teacher Amanda Grossi prints out the guidebook and goes through it page-by-page with students, helping them interpret the schools’ academic data and acceptance rates. She brings in former students to talk about the process and where they landed, and hosts a family night where parents can fill out the application.

While Grossi tries to help students make informed decisions, she worries about hardworking but middling students who fall into the “big divide” between magnet and comprehensive schools — and who, for all the dizzying options, have limited choices.

“There’s really no in-between,” she said.

For many parents, the solution is to push their children toward the magnets. Haneefah Webster encouraged her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School, to apply to Bard Early College High School, a magnet where students can earn two-year college degrees by graduation.

When she was her daughter’s age, Webster attended one of Newark’s traditional high schools, where she said she was a “math genius” and a “super honor roll student.” But when she entered a public college to study accounting, she soon found huge gaps in the math education she’d received. Before long, she switched her major to literature.

“That’s why I picked Bard” for Samiyah, she said. “So when she gets to college, she won’t have that struggle.”

Below are some of the eighth-graders we spoke with:

Valencia McDonald
Age: 13
Current school: Sussex Avenue
Top choice: Bard Early College High School (magnet school)
Advice to next year’s eighth-graders: “Go to a school that you like, especially if they have a club day you want to go to — so you can enjoy your time there, and also learn.”

Jahida Gilbert
Age: 14
Current school: Brick Avon Academy
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet school)
Advice: “Go beyond where you want to go — not what level your teachers say you’re at. [But] also, don’t choose too high, to where all the ones you choose you don’t get accepted so then you have to wait until they put you in one. Be reasonable with your grades — but try to go big too.”

Brianna Padilla
Age: 13
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Essex County Newark Tech (vocational-technical school)
Advice: “Don’t let no one doubt you, whatever high school you want to go to. If you feel you want to go there, then go there.”

Jordan King
Age: 15
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet)
Observation: “The one thing I hate is the waiting part. Life is all about waiting.”