a matter of time

Newark Teachers Union calls for end to extended-school-day programs, citing contract violations

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said the district has agreed to restore a "time-tested" system of rewarding teachers for advanced degrees and to eliminate a performance-based bonus.

The head of the Newark Teachers Union is calling on the district to abolish school-improvement efforts that ask teachers at certain schools to work longer hours in return for extra pay.

About 30 district schools have extended days, which teachers must agree to in writing each year. According to an email that the union president sent to the district’s interim superintendent on Tuesday, some principals pressured teachers to sign those agreements this week before they have had a chance to look for positions at other schools.

But the union chief, John Abeigon, has decided to use that grievance to renew past calls to dismantle all of the district’s extended-time programs entirely. In his email to Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, Abeigon called the programs “the last vestiges of a failed reform model” enacted by Cami Anderson, a former state-appointed superintendent with whom the union clashed bitterly.

Now that Newark’s elected school board has regained control of the schools, Abeigon said the district should restore an after-school initiative favored by the union and scrap the extended-day model.

“It’s a failure,” Abeigon said in an interview. “Now we’re trying to take advantage of the return to local control to get rid of it.”

The extended time was built into a 2012 contract negotiated by Anderson and the teachers union, which was hailed nationally as a model of district-labor cooperation. Under the contract, the superintendent could designate a limited number of so-called “Turnaround” schools whose academic performance needed to improve. In exchange for a $3,000 bonus, teachers who signed an annual agreement would work up to an hour longer each day and attend training sessions in the summer and on some weekends. The schools also were freed from some contract rules around scheduling, making them similar to charter schools that generally are not restricted by teachers contracts.

Some schools were insulted by the Turnaround label, sparking student protests. In some cases, teachers who refused to sign the agreements were transferred to other Turnaround schools, where they reportedly operated on different schedules than teachers who had signed on.

Still, about two-thirds of surveyed teachers said the extra time with students was valuable, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the district that looked at schools — including Turnaround schools and those in another school-improvement program, called “Renew” — where teachers agreed to extended schedules. Last year, the union and district negotiated a new teachers contract that goes to 2019 and includes both the Turnaround and Renew programs.

In response to Abeigon’s call Tuesday to do away with extended schedules, district officials pointed to last year’s agreement.

“The district signed a contract in 2017 with the Newark Teachers Union that included the opportunity for schools to provide extended learning time, because we believe that more learning time can help improve learning outcomes for students,” said Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, in a statement. “We look forward to working with the NTU to continue to ensure that this portion of the contract is implemented in a way that allows for all of our students and educators to be successful.”

The union has long raised doubts about whether the extra time is actually improving school performance. But the latest outcry appeared to be prompted less by fundamental concerns about the model than about how it is being carried out.

According to the union, some school administrators have revised the “election to work agreements” that outline teachers’ responsibilities at extended-time schools without consulting the union. Teachers would likely welcome some of the revisions — such as fewer trainings during the summer or on Saturdays — but union officials said they must still sign off on any changes.

In addition, some principals ordered teachers to sign next school year’s agreements this week. The union said that is unfair because the district has not yet hosted its annual job fair, meaning teachers are being asked to commit to stay at their current schools without being able to explore other options first.

As evidence, the union supplied an email from the principal of McKinley Elementary School to her staff saying that teachers who did not sign the agreements by Friday “will be removed from the McKinley Roster” and that teachers who do sign “obviously can’t change your mind to transfer later on.”

Another email provided by the union showed that the staff at Luis Muñoz Marin School for Social Justice had been told to sign their agreements by this Monday. However, they were informed Tuesday that the agreement had been modified and were told to sign the revised agreements by the end of that day.

Marin is part of the Renew program, while McKinley is a Turnaround school. Neither principal responded to emails seeking comment.

In his message to Interim Superintendent Gregory — which was titled “Turnaround Schools Dead: End the EWA threats now!” — Abeigon said that multiple principals had sent similarly “coercive” emails to teachers in recent weeks. He said the changes to the agreements violated the teachers contract. And he called on Gregory to “discuss replacing” the extended-time model with an after-school program that would only target students who need extra support.

“Dozens of your dedicated employees are crying out for help and your leadership,” Abeigon wrote, “as their backs are up against a wall you have the power to take down.”

Newark Enrolls

Want to attend one of Newark’s coveted magnet schools? Get ready to take a test.

Newark students who hope to attend one of the district's six magnet schools will have to take a new exam in January.

Newark students will soon face a new hurdle when trying to snag seats at the city’s most popular high schools.

Next month, any student who wants into one of the city’s six magnet schools will have to take a new exam that gauges their academic prowess as well as their interest in each school’s theme.

“If you would like to go to any of those schools,” Superintendent Roger León told parents at a conference Wednesday, “you better get ready for the test to get in.”

The exam, which will be given to students on Jan. 11-12, has not yet been announced on the district’s enrollment site. In fact, the test itself is still being developed and logistical details, such as where students will take it, are still being determined, officials said.

In addition to the new test, each school will also begin interviewing applicants, León said — something only two magnet schools did last year, according to an admissions guide. It’s unclear whether the interviews will take place this admission cycle. If so, schools may have to schedule dozens or even hundreds of interviews in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, enrollment for next school year began on Dec. 3 and continues through February — giving students and schools little time to prepare for the new requirements.

“I know as much as you know right now,” one principal said. “Obviously the superintendent is revamping some items, but he hasn’t really shared the details with everyone.”

The district-run magnet schools, which have themes such as science and American history, include some of the city’s most sought-after high schools. Last year, nearly 1,800 eighth-graders listed a magnet school first on their high-school applications even though the schools had space for only 971 students.

The magnets, which vastly outperform the district’s six traditional high schools, already screen applicants. They look at grades, state test scores, attendance records, and — in the case of Arts High School — an audition or visual-art portfolio, when deciding which students to let in.

But even with those screens, some admitted students are not prepared for the rigor of work at the magnets or lack a strong interest in their programs, León said.

“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s not that your parents have the right to choose for you to go.”

Even as he moves to make magnet schools more selective, León — who became superintendent in July — also hopes to make traditional schools more appealing to top students.

On Wednesday, he also announced plans to create gifted-and-talented programs at each of the traditional high schools. To qualify, students will also take the new magnet-school exam.

León did not go into detail about what the programs will entail. But he may be drawing from his previous experience as principal of University High School, a magnet school that advertises a gifted-and-talented program on its website. Students must test into the program, which includes a “rigorous curriculum” in English, math, and another language, according to the site.

“Students are going into magnets because they think that’s where they can get their high-performing education,” he said. “Now they’ll be given a reason to not do that.”

The traditional schools will also develop specialized “academies” to train students for various careers, including engineering, teaching, and health services. Each school will partner with a higher-education institution and a professional organization to develop those programs.

Many Newark schools have tried to offer vocational programs, but often struggle to find qualified teachers and meet the stringent requirements to receive federal funding. It’s unclear how the district will help them overcome those challenges, especially if the timeline is also aggressive.

Traditional schools, for their part, seem eager for any support they can get. Angela Mincy, principal of Barringer High School, said the school created an honors program last year in an effort to retain high-achieving students.

“If I don’t create an isolated experience for them, I will lose them,” she said in an interview last month, adding that the goal is to keep attracting more and more top students. “The hope is that one day, one honors track will become two will become three.”

With their selective admissions and college-oriented courses, the city’s magnet schools have long been seen as a refuge for high-achieving students who cannot afford private school. County-run vocational schools, which also screen applicants, are another popular option along with some charter high schools — though they often have few seats left over for students who did not attend their lower-grade schools.

The district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools are viewed by many families as schools of last resort. On nearly every academic measure — attendance rates, test scores, college enrollment and completion — the traditional schools lag far behind the magnets.

In a sense, this disparity is built into the system. Magnet schools are designed to enroll academically and artistically accomplished students. Traditional schools take the rest, including almost all students who are still learning English and the majority of those with disabilities.

Other cities have begun to rethink this practice of tracking students into separate schools according to ability — at least as measured by a single test. In New York City, where a debate has raged over admissions to the district’s coveted “specialized” high schools, the mayor has proposed scrapping the schools’ entrance exam. Instead, he said, they should reserve spots for the top students from every middle school.

Some Newark parents have floated a similar plan for the city’s most exclusive magnet school, Science Park High School. Instead, Superintendent León is pursuing the opposite approach — adding new entrance exams for all magnet schools. In other cities, exam schools tend to be highly segregated by race and class, favoring families with the wherewithal to help students prepare for the exams or pay for test prep.

León said he expects the new magnet exams will measure students’ reading and math proficiency, as well as their interest in each school’s particular focus, such as science or technology.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” said León, who graduated from Science High School. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

Karen Gaylord, Science Park High School’s community engagement specialist, said some teachers and  parents may grumble about the new test because they haven’t had a chance to prepare students for it. But she noted that families had become “resigned” to entrance exams when magnet schools used them in the past.

She also said many people would welcome the admissions interviews as a way for students to highlight skills and interests that aren’t reflected on their transcripts. The question, she said, is how schools will carry out these changes on such a tight timeline.

“It feels like there are so many opportunities to get this right,” she said. “I’m just not sure we’re going to get them all in this year. The clock is ticking.”

Newark Enrolls

In Newark, universal enrollment was in danger. So charters started planning a separate system.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

For much of this year, the fate of Newark’s joint district-charter enrollment system was uncertain.

So even as charter leaders negotiated changes to the shared system with the district’s new superintendent, they began quietly developing a backup plan in case it fell apart, according to a charter-sector memo obtained by Chalkbeat.

Beginning this spring, the sector began exploring a charter-only enrollment system, the October memo shows. This fall, the sector ramped up its contingency planning: It hired the district’s recently departed enrollment director to draw up plans for a charter-only system.

Ultimately, their efforts proved unnecessary — at least for now. Last month, after prodding from the superintendent, the Newark school board agreed to retain the joint enrollment system for at least another year.

Still, the behind-the-scenes planning shows how seriously some charter leaders took the threat that the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, could unravel. And it illustrates their fear of returning to what many charter proponents consider the bad old days, when each charter school had to convince families to apply to it separately because no universal application form existed.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, an advocacy and school-support group, said the sector was simply doing it “due diligence” in case negotiations with the district over Newark Enrolls broke down. She added that the sector developed a plan for how to create a charter-only enrollment system, but did not actually build one.

“We’re trying very hard to keep one system because we believe that’s in the best interest of kids and families,” Mason said. “But things could change here in Newark, and somebody could change their mind on one system, so we were just committed to not being caught flat-footed.”

The citywide enrollment system, originally called “One Newark,” has been divisive since it launched in 2014. It upended the tradition of families registering in person at their neighborhood school or entering admissions lotteries at individual charter schools. Instead, they could list up to eight district or charter schools on a single application before being matched to one school.

Early on, the new computerized system failed to match some students with any school and sent some siblings to schools in opposite ends of the city. Meanwhile, charter critics saw it as a scheme to divert students from the district into charter schools.

In 2016, the city school board passed a resolution to dismantle the system. But the move was mainly symbolic because the district was still under state control. Then, in February, the state ended its 22-year-long takeover and handed control back to the school board. Suddenly, the future of Newark Enrolls was in doubt.

Around that time, a few board members undertook a review of the enrollment system, which included talking to charter leaders. The charter leaders were left with the impression that some board members wanted separate district and charter enrollment systems, according to the charter memo.

At that point, sector began developing “contingency plans” for a charter-only system, the memo says. The idea was that if families could not longer apply to district and charter schools through a single system, they at least would not have to apply to each charter school separately.

Charter leaders’ fears grew in late June when the district’s new board-selected superintendent, Roger León, forced out dozens of administrators and top officials — including two who oversaw enrollment, Kate Fletcher and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. The board blocked their firing but both eventually resigned, leaving the enrollment office without a leader.

Around the time of León’s leadership shakeup, the Newark Charter School Fund hired a “research group” to study the computer program the district uses to match students with schools “so it can be replicated if needed,” according to the memo, which did not name the group.

Then tensions appeared to ease. In July, León assured charter leaders that he would protect the joint enrollment system. The two sides began negotiating the terms of an annual agreement that spells out how the system should operate.

Worried about the lack of leadership in the enrollment office and potential staff reductions, charter leaders pushed for a provision in the agreement that says the district must maintain “the quality and quantity of personnel necessary” to operate Newark Enrolls. The district accepted that change then proposed its own — an end to the practice of sending charter schools extra students to offset those who leave over the summer — which became a major sticking point. (The final agreement does not explicitly ban or allow the practice.)

Amid those talks, the charter sector hired Fletcher, the former district enrollment official, to develop a plan for “operationalizing” a charter-only enrollment system, according to the memo. That included contacting possible vendors and staffers to run the system, the memo says. (Fletcher did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Eventually, district and charter leaders settled on the language of the agreement. At a board meeting on Nov. 12, Superintendent León made a forceful case for keeping the joint enrollment system, saying it eased the application process for parents and gave them more options. The board voted to approve it.

However, the vote was more a temporary truce than a permanent end to the battle over Newark Enrolls.

Board Member Leah Owens, who abstained from the vote, said during the meeting that the system was costly for the district to maintain and amounted to a district endorsement of charter schools. Board Member Reginald Bledsoe said he was only voting for the agreement because the district had not yet created an alternative enrollment system.

“We talked at great length with the community that we wouldn’t be moving forward with this system,” Bledsoe told the superintendent during the meeting. “When will this plan come to a halt?”