Disenrolled

‘Kicked out’: Newark charter school purges students in possible violation of state rules

PHOTO: Getty Images

On the second day of the school year, Malika Berry got an alarming call from her son, a 10th-grader at Marion P. Thomas Charter School.

“Ma, they told me I don’t go here anymore,” Berry recalled her son saying.

After she rushed to the school on Aug. 28, a staffer informed Berry that her son, Sahir Minatee, had been dropped from the roster over the summer. The school said Berry had failed to provide a document proving the family still lived at the same address down the street from the Central Ward school, which her son had attended since ninth grade. (Berry says she sent the school a bank statement with her address in May or June, and offered another one in August, which the school refused to accept.)

“He was basically kicked out,” Berry said.

Sahir wasn’t alone. Marion P. Thomas, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade network of schools, removed 30 students from its roster over the summer for failing to submit proof of their address, school officials said.

The purge came over two months before Sept. 28 — the deadline Newark Public Schools gave families in charter and district schools to submit residency forms. It appeared to violate state regulations, which require districts to notify families and hold public hearings before removing enrolled children.

“The school can’t just throw a kid out,” said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney at the Newark-based Education Law Center, adding that state regulations typically apply to all public schools — district and charter alike.

Marion P. Thomas officials, who originally sent Sahir to the district enrollment office, which reassigned him to a district high school, now say they erred in forcing out families who failed to provide the residency paperwork. But more than two weeks into the school year, only five of the 30 students have re-enrolled at the charter school, according to the school’s chief administrator, Misha Simmonds.

“We should not have disenrolled them,” Simmonds said Wednesday. “And that’s why we’re accepting them back.”

The purge adds to the recent controversy surrounding the 19-year-old charter school, which turned away dozens of high-school students on the first day of class for minor uniform infractions. Videos of the students hanging out in a nearby park after being blocked from school quickly went viral, prompting an online backlash and an apology from the school.

Last week, the Education Law Center filed a complaint with the state education department asking it to investigate the uniform crackdown, which it said led to “blatantly illegal exclusions of students from school.” It also asked the department to investigate Berry’s claim that the school disenrolled her son in retaliation for his speaking out about the uniform incident, not because of missing paperwork. (The school denies that claim.)

Marion P. Thomas, like all New Jersey charter schools, gets its funding from the districts where its students live. (Most of the school’s students live in Newark, but a small number live in surrounding districts such as East Orange and Irvington.) The districts, including Newark Public Schools, require charters to prove their students are district residents before they hand over the per-pupil allowance for charter students.

New enrollees at any Newark district or charter school must submit three residency documents — which can include copies of utility bills, bank statements, or a driver’s license — while current students must provide one each year showing their address hasn’t changed. The deadline is Sept. 28.

Marion P. Thomas began sending home letters in February reminding families of this requirement, according to Simmonds. In May, it hired extra workers to call families. The school originally set a June deadline to turn in the documents, but extended it to July.

In mid-July — two months before the district’s deadline — the school disenrolled any students who had not yet provided residency documents, Simmonds said, adding that the charter informed the district of its purge. (A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request to confirm that.)

Simmonds said families received letters notifying them that they would be removed from the rolls if they failed to verify their addresses by the deadline. But he was not sure whether they were notified again after they missed the deadline and before they were removed.

According to state regulations, districts must provide notice in writing to families if their child is deemed ineligible to attend school in that district because of where they live or because of missing paperwork. Families can appeal that decision, and students have a right to remain enrolled in their school during the appeals process. The district’s board of education must then hold a hearing before removing any student.

In New Jersey, the state education department is the sole authorizer responsible for overseeing charter schools. Michael Yaple, a department spokesman, said “it wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to comment on a specific school, but noted that “there is a process for un-enrolling students that is set forth in the state regulations.”

In recent years, Marion P. Thomas and other Newark charter schools have faced growing pressure to prove their students live in the city — and are thus entitled to Newark’s education dollars.

In 2016, Newark Public Schools conducted an enrollment audit of all the city’s district and charter schools. The goal, as former Superintendent Christopher Cerf wrote in a letter to families that year, was to “ensure that the funding designated for Newark’s public schools is serving Newark residents.”

All students, whether current or new, had to submit three proofs of address that year. Some 1,300 charter students who could not prove Newark residency were told to “find another district to fund their seat at the charter or register in their home district,” according to minutes from a Dec. 2016 school board meeting.

After the audit, the district had to pay for 1,295 fewer charter students than it had originally projected, according to the board minutes. Cerf later said the audit saved the district $2 million.

Since then, Newark Public Schools, like other districts, has required families to re-submit residency documents each year. Simmonds, of Marion P. Thomas, said the requirement leaves charter schools “in a pickle” if families fail to provide the paperwork.

“If districts don’t get that, they don’t pay,” he said. “Every charter has had experiences with districts that have not paid.”

Gabriella DiFilippo, chief operating officer of KIPP New Jersey, which operates eight Newark charter schools, agreed that it can be an “enormous amount of work” to ensure families submit residency documents. For instance, families who share apartments may not have utility bills registered in their names. (The state regulations include special provisions for homeless and immigrant students.)

For that reason, she added, the network goes out of its way to help families round up the necessary paperwork.

“We would never tell a student that they couldn’t come to our school because they didn’t get their residency verification in,” she said.

Annual Regional Analysis

Where Chicago students travel the farthest to school, questions about why residents dodge neighborhood campuses

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and other district leaders hosted a community meeting on Thursday about the Annual Regional Analysis.

At a forum designed to explore solutions to putting top-rated schools and programs within reach of all Chicago students, residents of Greater Grand Crossing pushed Chicago Public Schools to help dispel stigmas they say makes their campuses a tough pitch to prospective families.

Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Thursday at Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School to review a district report on enrollment trends, school quality options, parent choice and program variety.

Known as the Annual Regional Analysis, it has spurred conversations about school quality, barriers to education equity — and fears of painful decisions to come amid an ongoing enrollment crisis. The school district presented hard numbers behind the problematic trend of shrinking neighborhood schools.

In a part of the city where students have one of the city’s longest commutes to school, district officials reviewed evidence of a troubling dynamic: students skipping over their neighborhood school and traveling long distances for other options.

The district’s chief school development officer, Hal Woods, drew from the report’s data about school quality, enrollment trends, choice patterns and programs, and reviewed data on the Greater Stony Island region, one of 16 planning areas defined by the city.

The region includes 10 communities in addition to Greater Grand Crossing, including South Shore, South Chicago, Chatham, Avalon Park, and Roseland. While clusters of middle class and affluent residents live in the area, most neighborhoods in the region have lower median household incomes.

As of last school year, when the analysis was compiled, the Greater Stony Island Region had about 24,000 students, most of them black, at nearly 50 schools.

Like in other parts of the city, many of the schools with neighborhood attendance boundaries suffer from underenrollment, bad reputations, a lack of of high-demand programs and low school quality ratings. But plenty of families are also skipping over top-rated schools.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

Attendees Thursday representing neighborhood schools said they don’t have shiny new buildings, or the finances or resources to wage a robust marketing campaign as many charter schools do. They sought district support to combat bad reputations and to inform other parents  – beyond school ratings – about the good things happening on their campuses.

“Are students choosing schools in their region? I think this is a really critical slide to look at for folks in this room,” Woods said, lingering on a chart showing average commute times for students across the city.

Local elementary school students commute an average of 2.6 miles, the farthest of  any region in the city. At the high school level, Greater Stony Island is tied with the Far Southwest Side region for the longest student commutes, an average of 5 miles compared with the citywide average of 3.6 miles.

In the past four years, the region has lost at least 2,600 district students – or 10 percent of its student population compared with a 6 percent drop citywide. The region had more than 4,200 unfilled, top-rated elementary school seats, but there are only about 450 unfilled Level 1 high school seats.

Of the four high schools in the area with neighborhood attendance boundaries, only Chicago Vocational is in good standing, according to the district’s school rating system. The other three neighborhood schools, including Harlan Community Academy High School and Hirsch Metropolitan High School, all suffer from low ratings and dwindling enrollment.

Meanwhile, the only schools in good standing or building enrollment are charter schools like Gary Comer College Prep with the Noble Network, or South Shore High School, a district-run selective enrollment school, and all draw attendance from across the city. Some attendees accused the schools of siphoning students from neighborhood schools with attendance boundaries.

But nearly two in three high school students leave the region altogether, “which is the high for all ARA regions,” Woods said.

In small discussion groups, attendees questioned how well school ratings actually convey quality, emphasizing that economic development, safety of the school neighborhood and the climate inside also factor into parents’ decisions.

Many said that the district should help schools suffering from stigma communicate their accomplishments and benefits, whether via social media, websites or billboards.

“We have wonderful things to offer — how are we going to market that at CPS?” said Wenda Royal, community school resource coordinator at South Shore Fine Arts Academy, speaking for a group of participants.

“There’s perceptions of schools that go back 10, 15, 25 or more years, that are no longer accurate,” Woods agreed.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chicago schools parent Sherretha Richardson.

Sherretha Richardson, a parent of three district students at Carnegie, Kenwood and Bouchett who lives in the East Side community, said marketing is especially important for schools whose ratings might not reflect a school’s successes.

“You look at Chicago Vocational, and you see a Level 2-plus. But you have Level 1-plus administration and teachers as far as their effort, their energy,” she said.

She said the district has to do a better job of engaging parents with technology.

“This meeting here, for the parents that couldn’t come out, there should have been a webinar, they should have had it on the internet, where the parents could have chimed in and actually heard what was going on,” she said.

District CEO Janice Jackson was paying attention.

“One of my commitments is really to restore the credibility and the integrity of our school system, and it starts with sharing more information, and that’s what this event is about tonight,” Jackson said in opening remarks.

She’s begun an initiative that allows schools to request programs like the International Baccalaureate on their campuses. The alternative, she said,  “is what has occurred for too long, which is the people in charge, me, my team, sit around a conference table, look at a map, look at data, and make decisions about who should get what.”

“What I say to some of the people who have a problem with this is that you can demand community engagement, but you cannot tell me how to engage the community,” she said. “And I think this is the right approach, I think this is what we need to do to make sure everybody feels like they have a fair shot.”

proposed path

Facing potential loss of control, Adams 14 wants to show the state how the district might improve

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

In meeting after meeting in recent weeks, Adams 14 district leaders repeated the sad statistics about their district’s shortcomings, from poor attendance to low state test scores.

Acknowledging those problems and talking about the district’s failures is taking a toll on staff and on the community. But district leaders hope that by being open they can keep some control over a situation in which they might ultimately end up with none.

Adams 14, a district of about 7,500 students north of Denver, has a hearing before the Colorado State Board of Education on Wednesday at which state officials must decide what steps to order Adams 14 to take to try to finally improve the struggling district.

The state board already approved an improvement plan last year, but it hasn’t shown enough results. Now district officials must answer why — and prove they can do better given more time.

Among the board’s most extreme options, they could choose to dissolve the local district and start a process to combine it with neighboring districts. A review panel has recommended a different, but potentially also drastic option: to turn over management of the district and its schools to an outside group.

Accountability Pathways

  • For more on the state’s options as it decides the fate of Adams 14, click here.

Such a takeover has never happened in Colorado, and it’s not clear exactly what that would look like. Colorado law does not allow for the complete state takeover that has happened in other states, but whatever comes next will represent a new chapter for Adams 14, its control over its schools, and its relationship with the community.

There are varying degrees of authority that the district could be forced to give up. The local Adams 14 school board has pushed district staff to write a proposal that leans towards the more extreme end of the scale, giving up more control than has happened before. The proposal was finalized this week, but given how quickly the district had to create it, there are still missing details that might answer questions about what the plan would mean for Adams 14 staff and students.

There is not much concrete evidence that outside groups can make a difference for low-performing schools or districts, and in some cases, there is evidence they can strip a community of their voice and local power.

For now, what is known is that Adams 14 is proposing to hire two external managers. One would oversee district systems and would have authority over the superintendent, but would still answer to the existing, locally elected Adams 14 board. The second external manager would be hired specifically for Adams City High School, the district’s lowest performing school, which is facing state intervention itself. That manager would have authority over the principal and staff and would answer directly to the Adams 14 board, not the superintendent.

“The district does need help,” Barb McDowell, the district’s union president acknowledges. “We just hope whoever is chosen to be the external manager allows us to remain local and public.”

If the state board allows the district to try its proposed plan, a lot of what comes next could depend on who the district hires as that outside manager.

The groups under consideration include the University of Virginia program known as Partnership for Leaders in Education, the University of Denver, and Mass Insight. Local school board members also asked staff to look into working with KIPP, the national charter network that is proposing to open a school in Adams 14.

The district would go through a bidding process that could start as soon as next week to vet outside groups.

But at least some people, including Bill Hyde, one of the Adams 14 board members, question whether the district should make that selection.

“If the conclusions of the state review panel and the results of the community survey … are accurate and valid regarding Adams 14’s insufficient leadership, vision, and sense of urgency, it seems incredible (that is, not credible) or at least misguided, to ask that same leadership to provide a plan for the district’s future,” Hyde wrote. “I encourage the [State Board of Education] to reserve for itself the decision of selecting an external manager.”

Another option Hyde and teachers union members are supporting would be to select the neighboring district of Mapleton Public Schools as the external manager. Mapleton serves about 9,000 students in a model that requires all students to choose their school and has a state rating of “improvement,” which is one rating above Adams 14’s. This option cedes control but not to a charter organization.

“I have not heard or seen any other proposal that comes close to this one in terms of efficacy, likelihood of success, and simplicity of operation and management,” Hyde wrote. “Choice is something that our community wants, and a portfolio management model would fit our needs in that regard.”

And, Hyde pointed out, it is supported by the teachers union and the community. Yvonne Bradford, director of Central Adams Uniserv, a collection of teachers unions, sent Hyde an outline of Mapleton’s interest. District officials confirmed their interest.

Bradford wrote that Mapleton’s superintendent “wants to help Adams 14 get systems and structures in place. She wants to collaborate with parents and staff at each school to see what kind of school they want and then help make that happen.”

She added: “She does not want a precedent set that outside private money comes into Colorado, takes the money, and the district is no better off when they leave.”

Evidence on the effectiveness of outside groups, especially for turning around an entire district, is limited.

When Adams 14 officials asked experts from the state education department for examples of what external management could look like, one example they pointed to was the turnaround of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The 33-school district in the suburbs of Boston became the first in that state to face state control. In 2012, the state appointed a “receiver” who took over the duties of the district’s superintendent and local governing board.

That appointed leader answered directly to the state commissioner of education and was given authority to bypass the district’s union contract, including to expand the school day and year, change teacher pay, and fire some district staff.

With that oversight, the district partnered with five groups to run six of the lowest performing schools in the district. The partners included the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union group, and some charter schools. The district also contracted with several additional groups that provided more specific resources such as after-school programs or teacher training. The district slowly gave all schools more autonomy and flexibility.

Research on the effects of that turnaround are mixed, although some say it is one of the better examples of a successful district turnaround. Test scores did rise soon after the changes and graduation rates have improved, but some challenges remain. The state is now in the process of transitioning control back to a local board.

Brett Alessi, who helped lead that work and is co-founder of Empower Schools, says that the work outside groups do isn’t special, but can help change the discussions — and the urgency — around change.

“Everything we did in Lawrence, a superintendent and school board can do, the question is why aren’t they doing these things,” Alessi said. “It’s just hard for them. That threat of real action can be a motivator to think about new changes as opposed to just bringing in a new superintendent or a new curriculum.”

Domingo Morel, a political scientist who criticizes state takeovers of school districts from his research on the political impact for local communities, says the key is for state officials to work with communities to empower them instead of taking away their voice.

“Usually when you have a third-party organization, you’re just shielding them from democratic pressure,” Morel said. “When you have communities that want to have a say, those avenues are not there for them, then it becomes highly problematic.”

And, he said, local communities must work together.

“Looking at the state for a solution is probably not going to work,” Morel said. “Based on history, it’s not likely.”

In Adams 14, rising tensions around the state’s possible actions and the upcoming vote on the proposed KIPP school have divided the community.

Many parents who are supportive of KIPP — and drastic state actions — have shied away from the public process after, they say, teachers have confronted them about their views. But other community members, including Timio Archuleta, who stepped away from the school board president role this summer, have criticized parents who “only want to complain” but don’t get involved in their schools.

This year, state officials have sought more public feedback for the State Board’s decision. The district has also held several meetings with different community members and groups to gather feedback.

A group of education advocates this week signed a report that includes a list of recommendations for the district and state to consider as they decide on the fate of Adams 14. Among those recommendations, they ask that the district be pushed to continue to engage the community throughout the process, and to develop systems to better communicate to families their students’ expectations.

Morel said all voices are important in the process for improving schools, but he said the idea that some people don’t care is a myth.

“As parents, we are concerned for our child that particular year,” Morel said. “That voice is more likely to be in favor of a short-term fix. Community organizations that are concerned not just about this year, but 10 years from now, that voice is also important in the conversation.”

Check out the district’s prepared presentation to the state, below, and the full concept paper, here.