Transparency Tracker

‘No secret agreements’: Newarkers demand details of district-charter enrollment deal

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This week, the Newark school board approved a lengthy legal agreement spelling out the details of the enrollment system that thousands of Newark families will use to apply to schools for the coming year.

Didn’t hear about it? You’re not alone.

The board OK’d the deal at a hastily arranged meeting Monday that few people in the community knew about or attended. State rules require that any changes to the district’s enrollment system “be publicly and transparently articulated before adoption.”

It’s unclear whether any changes were made — which would have triggered the transparency rules — because the board did not publicly discuss the details of the deal before voting, and the district has not made the agreement public.

Deborah Smith-Gregory, the president of the Newark NAACP, who attended Monday’s meeting, said she was disappointed that the board did not reveal any specifics about this year’s enrollment deal. Now that the district is back under local control after decades of state rule, she said, the elected board must commit to greater transparency.

“They have to do things differently,” she said. “They have to keep in mind that they’re a public entity — and they’re accountable to the community.”

The agreement describes in minute detail the inner workings of the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, which allows families apply to most district and charter schools using a single application. The district and charter schools that opt into the system must sign the agreement each year.

The Newark Board of Education ratified the deal during a special meeting Monday — when schools and the district’s central office were closed. The meeting was scheduled to accommodate a charter school whose own board planned to vote on the agreement Tuesday. The timeline is tight because the citywide period for applying to schools begins Dec. 3.

The public agenda for Monday’s meeting, which mostly consisted of the board and Superintendent Roger León talking behind closed doors, did not mention the agreement. Just four community members were present for the public portion, when León and a couple board members made general comments about the controversial system, which critics contend funnels students into charter schools.

Then, without any public discussion of the agreement’s details — including a proposed change that León and charter leaders had debated in private — a majority of board members voted to approve it.

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a fierce critic of charter schools, said both the district and its charter-school partners should disclose the terms of the deal.

“There should be absolute transparency,” he said.

The district’s current leadership is not the first to keep details of the enrollment system under wraps.

León, who began July 1, inherited it from his state-appointed predecessors, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf. One of only a handful of systems nationwide that combine district and charter admissions, proponents say it eases the enrollment process for families while helping to more evenly spread high-needs students across schools. Critics say it was designed to steer students and resources into the charter sector.

The system is dictated by the annual agreement between Newark Public Schools and participating charter schools. Apart from the news website NJ Spotlight, which published the agreement when it was first announced in 2013, it does not appear to have been released to the public since then — even as it has doubled in length, filling 20 pages last year.

In 2015, after Anderson touted the agreement at a state legislative hearing, saying it had created “greater equity and consistency” in admissions, several lawmakers asked to see it.

“No one seems to know about it,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo during the hearing.

After Anderson resigned, Cerf’s administration continued to renew the agreement each year. In an email, Cerf, who stepped down in February, said, “The document was always publicly available and was frequently discussed publicly.”

But community activists who have long scrutinized the enrollment system said they do not recall the district ever publicizing the agreement.

“I do not remember ever seeing this document, ever seeing it published anywhere, ever seeing it on the [district] website where we could find it, ever even discussing it in a thorough manner,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime activist and critic of the enrollment system. She added that the new administration and school board should release the latest document to the public.

“No secret agreements,” she said. “You voted on it. If you’re discussing it, then why can’t we have a say in it?”

Absent the agreement, families have other ways to learn about Newark Enrolls. The district publishes a thick enrollment guidebook each year with information about every school, and hosts an annual admissions fair. It also maintains an enrollment website featuring a family-friendly video that illustrates how the system works.

But the agreement offers a uniquely detailed look under the system’s hood — and describes features that are not widely known, according to a copy of last year’s agreement that Chalkbeat obtained.

For instance, it alludes to a “third party” that programs the algorithm used to match students with schools based on the terms set forth in the agreement. The district plays “no active role” in the actual assignment of students to schools, the document says.

It also stipulates that the district must send charter schools as many students as they request. In return, charters must admit all students assigned to them — even if that pushes their enrollment above the limit set by the state, according to the 2017 document.

That practice of assigning schools more students than they currently have space for, called “overmatching,” is done to offset attrition that happens as some families inevitably leave the district before the next school year starts. It became a sticking point in recent closed-door negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools.

León wanted to end the practice, despite charter leaders who said it was critical for filling their seats. People in the charter sector said the final agreement still allows overmatching, though León told Chalkbeat that he believes the practice is unnecessary because charters can pull students from their waitlists to replace those who leave.

In an interview after Monday’s vote, León said no major changes were made to this year’s agreement.

Board chair Josephine Garcia, who made no public comments about enrollment during Monday’s meeting, declined to be interviewed immediately afterwards and did not respond to emails later in the week. However, she was overheard saying after the meeting that the district would eventually “rebrand” the enrollment system.

Chalkbeat contacted the district several times after the meeting to request a copy of the agreement. On Thursday evening, an official provided a public-records request form, which Chalkbeat submitted.

As of Friday, the district had not released the document.

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”