Enrollment 101

Should ‘Newark Enrolls’ be scrapped? A guide to the debate over Newark’s controversial enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Now that Newark’s school board has appointed a new school superintendent, both face a fundamental question that has long roiled the district: How should its 51,000 public-school students enroll in school?

Some in the city want to keep the current system, which folds together admissions for district and charter schools, insisting that it reduces the burdens placed on parents. Others want to overhaul or even abolish the system, arguing that it shuts some students out of their top choices and boosts charter-school enrollment at the expense of district schools. It’s a heated debate that’s now coming to a head.

In the not-so-distant past, enrollment meant walking to your neighborhood school to register, or submitting an application directly to one of the city’s many charter schools. But in 2014, the district adopted a radically different system, first called “One Newark” and now known as “Newark Enrolls,” that allows families to apply to almost any public school in the city — traditional, magnet, or charter — using a single online tool.

Newark was one of the first districts in the country to adopt this type of centralized enrollment system, which was designed to make it easier for families to take advantage of the city’s different school options. But its glitchy rollout sparked an uproar among parents, as charter critics attacked it as a ploy to funnel students into the city’s growing charter sector.

Four years and numerous improvements later, many families have grown used to the system, which uses an algorithm to assign students to schools based partly on their preferences. “If they’re able to select their school, and their child is going to their first choice, then there’s not a problem,” said Stacy Raheem, who as a staffer at Unified Vailsburg Services Organization, a West Ward community organization, helped about 40 parents apply to kindergarten for the fall.

And yet, the enrollment system, which was installed by an unpopular state-appointed superintendent, has never recovered from the controversy that marked its origins.

Now, the system’s fate will be decided by the elected school board — which just regained authority over the district this year — with help from the district’s newly selected superintendent, Roger León. As they weigh their options, board members have been hearing from district officials and charter-school leaders, who are scrambling to defend the system. But diehard critics continue to call for its dismantling.

“All you guys will be held accountable,” said Daryn Martin, a parent organizer, during public comments at a board meeting last week where he denounced the enrollment system. “Something’s got to be done about this.”

As Newark’s school-enrollment debate ramps up, here’s a guide to how it works and what could change.

What is Newark Enrolls?

“Newark Enrolls” is the city’s single enrollment system for most charter and district schools. About 12,100 families used it to apply to more than 70 schools this year.

Families can rank up to eight schools on a single application, which most complete online. (Those without online access can fill out paper applications.) Then a computer algorithm matches each student to a school based on the student’s preferences, available space, and rules that give priority to students who live near a school or whose siblings go there.

It costs the district about $1.1 million per year to manage the system.

Which schools are part of it?

Most of the city’s charter, magnet, and traditional schools participate in Newark Enrolls.

Newark is one of just a handful of cities, including Camden, Denver, and Washington, D.C., to feature this kind of “common” or “universal” enrollment system. It’s meant to spare parents from having to submit multiple, time-consuming applications that may have different deadlines — a system that advantaged families with the most time and resources. A centralized process also prevents schools from discouraging high-needs students from applying, an accusation that charter schools often face.

The city’s charter schools, which are independently operated, must agree to let the district manage their admissions. This year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter operators signed on. Charter schools that don’t participate, such as Robert Treat Academy and Discovery, handle their own admissions lotteries.

Students can also apply to the city’s six magnet high schools through Newark Enrolls. But unlike other district or charter schools, magnet schools are allowed to rank applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors, before the matching algorithm is run.

How well does it work?

There are different ways to measure that.

One indicator of success is how many families get their desired school. This year, 84 percent of incoming kindergarteners were matched with their top choice, and 94 percent got one of their top three choices. Among rising ninth graders, many of whom were competing for seats at the city’s coveted magnet high schools, only 41 percent got their first choice and 70 percent got one of their top three.

Another metric is parent satisfaction with the process. Among nearly 1,800 people who took a survey after completing an online application this year, 95 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the enrollment process. A similar share said the application was “easy” or “very easy” to navigate.

Yet another yardstick is equity. One stated goal of the universal enrollment system was to ensure that charter schools, which enroll a third of Newark students, serve their fair share of students with disabilities. To achieve that goal, the system’s algorithm gives these students a boost when applying to schools where this population is underrepresented among applicants.

Both charter and magnet schools now serve more special-needs students than they did before Newark Enrolls. The increase was especially dramatic at magnet schools, where the percentage of ninth-graders with disabilities jumped from 5 to 13 percent between 2014 and 2017,  according to a recent report by researchers at Columbia University, who note that the changes may have been caused by other policy changes in addition to the new enrollment system.

“This is about equity and access for all families,” said Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason, who is calling on the school board to preserve the universal enrollment system.

Still, the system has not, by itself, erased enrollment disparities.

Traditional high schools continue to serve a far needier population than magnet or charter schools, where the share of ninth-graders with disabilities inched up from 13 to 15 percent over that period. (At traditional high schools, the rate is 22 percent.) Also, the policy that gives priority to students who live near schools effectively walls off popular options from students in other neighborhoods, while magnet schools are essentially allowed to turn away students with low test scores or poor attendance records.

And no matter how well the algorithm works, there are too few high-performing schools to match every student to one who applies. In the most recent admissions cycle, about 1,800 rising ninth-graders listed magnet schools as their top choice — but those schools only had 971 seats to offer.

Why has it been controversial?

The enrollment system’s reputation has never fully recovered from its explosive inception.

It was rolled out in late 2013 as part of “One Newark,” a sweeping overhaul that closed, consolidated, or restructured about a quarter of the city’s schools. Unveiled in one fell swoop by former Superintendent Cami Anderson, the plan was met with bitter protests and a federal civil-rights complaint.

Technical aspects of the enrollment system were initially flawed as well. Some families got no placements, while others had siblings sent to far-flung schools. Meanwhile, the district only provides busing to certain students with special needs — leaving families who are matched with distant schools to find their own transportation.

“They did a real good job of uprooting Newark,” said Daryn Martin, the parent organizer who spoke up at the most recent board meeting and whose children attended Ivy Hill Elementary.

Since then, the district has tweaked the algorithm and provided parents with more information to help them choose schools. School board members say they continue to get complaints from parents who have problems with the system — but far fewer than in the past.

Still, the system remains embattled. In 2016, the school board passed a resolution to dismantle it — though the state-appointed superintendent at that time, Christopher Cerf, kept it in place. Today, critics who say Newark Enrolls is designed to steer students into charter schools continue to demand that it be scrapped.

“Are we going to spend a lifetime improving something,” said Newark Teachers Union President Jon Abeigon, “or just admit it was a failure?”

What could — or should — change?

Several school board members have called for big changes to the enrollment system. But they’ve yet to say what those should be.

“It does not work for everyone,” said board member Yambeli Gomez at a forum in April before she was elected. “We just have to make it better.”

The challenge for the board, now that it’s back in charge of district policy, will be to find a way to fix the system’s flaws without introducing new inequities for students or hardships for parents.

The board has some time to do that. Under state guidelines, it must keep the current enrollment system in place for the coming school year. Already, several board members have discussed the system with the Newark Charter School Fund, and the full board peppered the district’s enrollment chief, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, with questions at a meeting at Science Park High School this month.

Most members acknowledge that it would be difficult to scrap Newark Enrolls entirely and return to a system where students are automatically assigned to their nearest district school because many schools have been closed. Not to mention, the survey data suggests that many parents favor the current system.

“You can’t just dismantle universal enrollment,” said board member Tave Padilla. “You would have chaos.”

But the board could overhaul the existing system. One option would be to boot charter schools from it. Doing so might steer more families into district schools, but it could also recreate some of very inequities universal enrollment was meant to eliminate — families with the ability to fill out multiple applications would enjoy the most school options, and unscrupulous charters could potentially skim students.

The possibility of being ejected from Newark Enrolls is causing alarm among some charter operators who worry they might attract fewer students if families have to once again fill out separate applications for each charter network or school, according to people in that sector. The concern is greatest among independent charter-school operators, who often have local roots but lack the advertising and recruitment budgets of the larger networks. Some operators have discussed creating a single application for all the city’s charter schools, but that will only be necessary if the board decides to terminate the universal system.

Another option is to find ways to improve the current enrollment process. Roger León, the incoming superintendent, appears to favor that route. In a recent interview, he floated the idea of restoring a committee that in the past would review every appeal from families who were unhappy with their assigned schools. Such a review panel could make an impersonal system feel more responsive to families, but it wouldn’t be able to satisfy every parent seeking a seat in one of the city’s limited number of high-performing schools.

Whatever the board decides, León said he is committed to maintaining a system where families have school options — even if the process for exercising that choice is altered.

“I believe families make decisions where their child should go,” he said, “and I don’t think anyone should change that.”

counting students

As Griffin battles low enrollment in Tennessee’s state district, she looks to a school with a waitlist

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, far right, reacts as Westwood students say a chant with their teacher. Griffin, who took over the district in June, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students.

In a brightly decorated Memphis classroom with student work taped all over the walls, 26 second-graders sit attentive on a blue-colored carpet.

They are tracking every word their lead teacher Kaneshia Vaughn says. “Turn and talk with your partner,” Vaughn tells the kids. Excited voices fill the room. “Coming back in five, you turning towards me in four, hands in slant in three, tracking Ms. Vaughn in two,” Vaughn counts down. The classroom goes completely silent.

Sitting at a desk nearby, the leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, Sharon Griffin, says she is all smiles because of the “wowing and obvious” respect and enthusiasm shown by the students.

But here’s the other noticeable thing about this and other classrooms at Freedom Preparatory Academy-Westwood Elementary: They are full.

The school was taken away from the local Memphis school district in 2014 and given to Freedom Prep to run under the umbrella of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools. When Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter network, took over the elementary school, it had around 350 students. The school now has about 558 children enrolled and a waitlist of almost 80 students.

Griffin, who started as the district’s leader three months ago, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students. Schools get funding based on enrollment, so chronically low numbers can lead schools to shutter. Four schools within the state district have closed — all cited low enrollment as a main reason why. The district now runs 30 schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis.

“We want to learn from schools and be in close proximity to the work,” Griffin told a group of Freedom Prep network leaders she met with this month. “Freedom Prep has a waitlist, but many of our schools are under-enrolled. There’s something you’re doing and strategies we can share.”

School leaders say one of the first changes they made at Westwood was distancing the school from the word “turnaround,” which is often used in education reform to talk about improving the academics of a chronically low-performing school.

The Freedom Prep charter network was started in 2009 by Roblin Webb, a former Memphis attorney. Westwood is the only state school Freedom Prep runs, although the organization also operates four schools under the local Memphis district. Westwood Elementary lies two miles away from Freedom Prep’s first school, a high school that has had success raising students’ ACT scores and college acceptance rates.

“When we started the ASD school here, we already had a track record with the community,’ Webb told Griffin during the meeting. “Charters coming from out of state had a struggle with name recognition.”

Tiffany Fant, a parent of a 7-year-old at Westwood, told Chalkbeat she heard about the school from friends. Her child went to a school in the traditional Memphis district, Balmoral-Ridgeway Elementary School, but she felt he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. So, she came to Westwood last year.

“Now, he’s in speech therapy here and that’s been really good,” Fant said. “I feel like they spend more time on each kid here.”

Webb said their positive relationship with parents and churches really helped at the school — families that had left for schools outside of the Westwood neighborhood started coming back. But name-recognition was half of the battle. Like most schools, Freedom Prep has to actively recruit students.

But unlike many schools, the responsibility of recruitment doesn’t fall on school leadership. The charter network has a community outreach team that’s in charge of recruitment and enrollment, allowing principals to focus on academics at the start of the year.

“It takes the responsibility off of school leaders’ plates,” Webb said. “Every school has someone on site. It’s expensive.” To which Griffin responded, “It doesn’t cost as much as not having kids.”

Schools in the Achievement School District have also struggled to retain their highest-rated teachers. Freedom Prep’s leadership team told Griffin that keeping great educators has helped them keep students.

Researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College have said that disruption, or losing some bad teachers, is a key part of turnaround work. But they added that a school can’t thrive unless educators stay and improve — and that takes time.

Freedom Prep uses a co-teaching model — each classroom has a lead teacher, with the most experience, and a co-teacher. The two educators split responsibilities in the classroom. Westwood has retained its school principal for the last three years, and about 80 percent of its teaching staff, said Lars Nelson, Freedom Prep’s chief instruction officer.

That’s a very high rate of retention for a turnaround school, according to the Vanderbilt researchers. According to a 2017 brief, schools in the Achievement School District lost half of its teachers in the first three years.

“Our strong leader stayed, and that meant strong teachers stayed,” Nelson told Chalkbeat. “That’s big for us. When you think about it from a talent perspective, we’re keeping the people who have the biggest impact on student achievement.”

Vaughn, the Westwood second-grade teacher, left Westwood two years ago to teach at another Memphis charter school. But she came back last year because she said she missed the “family environment” of Westwood.

Sharon Griffin, right, tours Westwood Elementary with school leaders.

“It’s the kind of school where you know people actually have your back and you have theirs,” Vaughn said. “I also wanted to come back to a school where I felt like we had high expectations for our students, and the support to actually get them to those expectations. I see little and big victories in my students here. That’s rewarding in such a hard job.”

Lars added that Westwood still has a ways to go to achieve the level of academic success they want for their students. That’s not surprising — all schools within the Achievement School District were taken over because they were in the bottom five percent of schools academically.

When Freedom Prep took over Westwood, it was rated as a level one in student growth, the lowest level in the state’s rating system of a 1-5 scale.

Under Freedom Prep, Westwood was a one again in 2017. But in the new batch of scores released this month, Westwood jumped to a level three. For comparison, the state district overall scored as a level one.

In TNReady, the state’s end-of-year assessment, 10.6 percent of Westwood students scored on grade level in English and 11.2 percent in math. That’s slightly better than the district-wide average, but still far below the state’s average for grades 3-8.

While recruitment strategies and keeping good teachers have helped Westwood gain students, Lars said what matters most is a school with strong academics. If the school has a reputation of creating great learners, families will come, he said.

“We’re proud of our growth at Westwood but we’re also dissatisfied,” Lars said. “Our other elementary school, which is under Shelby County Schools, is a level five. And we fully expect Westwood to be a level five this year.”

new school

A new school in Bronzeville says a lot about what parents want

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Kindergarten at Bronzeville Classical

The first day of school, Nicole Spicer woke up at 4 a.m., put on a kelly-green blouse that matched her school colors, and was greeting new families at the door by 7:30 a.m.

By 9:30 a.m., the founding principal of the new Bronzeville Classical Elementary had run the school leadership gauntlet: encouraging her small cadre of teachers, welcoming jittery students and parents, and throwing an opening-day party complete with a balloon trellis and visits from such VIPs as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson.

Her venti Starbucks coffee had long grown cold. So she headed to the teachers’ lounge to zap it in the microwave before embarking on another tour of the building, a former elementary school that closed under former schools chief Arne Duncan, reopened as a charter, then closed again.

In the school-choice era in Chicago, school buildings can have many incarnations, and 8 West Root Street’s latest says a lot about what parents in and around Bronzeville want. The only new selective enrollment school opening this year, it comes amid amped-up debate about the degree to which test-in schools pick off accelerated learners and middle-class families at the expense of neighborhood programs.

The debate recently has been stoked by reports that paint a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand in individual schools as well as the startling number of open seats in neighborhood schools.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Assistant principal Raven Talley and principal Nicole Spicer

A case study in what a school can look like with robust support, Bronzeville Classical’s deep bench consists of black religious and business leaders from the community around it. A multimillion gut rehab puts its facilities-wise on par with private schools — there are smart boards in classrooms, a new playground and turf area, even a donated pottery kiln. And the principal has ties with the historically black neighborhood, which still really matters in Chicago.

“Bronzeville has always been a part of who I am,” said Spicer, who grew up near 41st and Indiana streets and attended Catholic schools in the area, despite family who were alums of Phillips High School. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”

The opportunity she’s describing is building a school from the ground up, from hiring the staff to prioritizing Spanish-language immersion and music theory to recruiting the students. Since the school was announced last December, Bronzeville Classical has enrolled 80 children in grades K through second, with plans to add a grade each year. It still has 100 students to go to reach its initial goal.

To recruit more families, Spicer is setting up her front office to help families navigate the selective-enrollment process, which includes completing a centralized online application and registering children for a testing appointment at a facility near IIT. There will also be orientations for prospective families, tours, a social media push, and workshops for families, said Assistant Principal Raven Talley. “When you walk into a school, you want to feel and see the community and the culture,” Talley said.

Not everyone who lives in the surrounding neighborhoods can attend the school, no matter the supports. That bothers public education organizers like Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance. He has long encouraged CPS to stop segregating students by test scores and shower its neighborhood schools with the same resources and attention it gives new schools. “The rest of our babies are left to languish in neighborhood schools that are starved.”

In essence, other schools could use smart boards and Spanish immersion. A balloon trellis wouldn’t hurt.

The parent perspective

Brittany Smith, the parent of a first-grader at Bronzeville Classical, sympathizes with that argument. But, at 27, she’s part of a generation that came up in the choice era, traveling to a magnet school as an elementary student that was near the Indiana border and then attending Whitney Young, the city’s first public magnet high school.

In other words, “I’m used to the idea,” she said.

Smith lives in Bronzeville, just down the street from Ida B. Wells Preparatory, which reported an average kindergarten class size of 38 last year (the district average was 16.9, according to the 2017 Illinois School Report Card.) Put off by the class sizes, she tested her daughter and gained admission into a selective-enrollment school that was a 20-minute drive from her house. When she heard about Bronzeville Classical, which would be less than 5 minutes away, she applied. “I can tell there is a lot of support from the teachers and the principal, and it’s in the neighborhood.”

For many families, the decision to transfer to a new school with no record is not made lightly. There’s no word of mouth and no test score data to compare, though classical schools — which teach a grade level above, focus on language, and usually have strong art and music programs — are consistently among the district’s highest performing.

A gut rehab meant fresh new paint and lockers, but the marble staircase remains

A few days in, both Smith and another parent, Alicia Blais, who lives in McKinley Park, feel encouraged. Smith, who is black, appreciates the diversity of the school (numbers aren’t fully in, but an early measure shows the school at 50 percent black, 20 percent Asian, and 10 percent white, with a third of the students qualifying as low-income), the sparkling facility, and the fact that her daughter comes home happy.

Blais, who is white, says Spicer and her assistant principal are working with her to provide the right experience for her daughter, who is highly sensitive. Already, the first grader has really connected with the Spanish teacher. Calling it a “last stop” before moving to the suburbs, Blais said, “We are one of many parents who need this school to work.”

Design from the ground up

The siren call of a new school doesn’t just lure parents. Educators hear it, too. An award-winning reading specialist who formerly served as assistant principal at another classical school, Skinner North, Spicer participated in a highly competitive process for the principalship. It culminated with her speaking in a public forum last spring alongside another finalist.

After getting the job and taking what she describes as a “listening tour” of community organizations, she approached hiring her small staff with the same careful scrutiny: sorting through hundreds of applications to find a diverse roster of candidates. She opted for full-time music, PE, and Spanish in addition to her K-2 classroom teachers, special education teacher, and a counselor. In lieu of full-time art, a nonprofit group will come in and teach one day a week. (An alum of Golden Apple, the prestigious Illinois teacher training program, Spicer said three of her hires share those ties)

For Jessica Lyons, the Spanish teacher, who previously taught in a Catholic school, the chance to build curriculum from the ground up was persuasive. So was Spicer’s vision of earning a Seal of Biliteracy. For her, that means teaching classes completely in Spanish and cultivating a positive mindset around learning languages through books like “La Vaca Que Decía Oink,” about a cow that says oink. “I’ve designed Spanish programs at schools before, but this is an opportunity to really start something from the ground up and have ownership over it.”

Music teacher Reginald Spears has been working in Chicago schools for a decade, most recently at the nearby Doolittle Elementary. He brings with him a vision for a musical curriculum that prepares children for elementary band, or orchestra, complete with sight reading and songwriting. At some schools, music is viewed as a vehicle to teach reading or math, he explains — here, it’s a subject worthy of its own study and exploration.

He also brings training in calm classroom techniques, such as breathing and stretching, that he has shared with his fellow teachers. “I’m excited that this going to be part of the school.”

But despite the gleaming hallways and pottery kiln, Bronzeville Classical is still a public school in Chicago and can’t escape the realities of the district’s ongoing budget crunch. So Spears’ ambitions of a piano lab and a suite of shiny instruments might require some creativity. He plans to start the way teachers across the city do — a crowdsourcing page on the website Donors Choose.org.