charter-district debate

As New Jersey takes a close look at charter schools, here are three big questions in Newark

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Only a handful of people attended a public forum on charter schools in Newark Monday.

Newark residents had a chance this week to sound off on charter schools, which remain a lightning rod in the city even as they educate more than one in three Newark students.

As part of a statewide charter school “listening tour,” the state education department hosted a public forum Monday in Newark, where nearly 18,900 students attend charters — making Newark the charter capital of the state. Yet of 90 registered attendees, only six people showed up.

“I enjoyed this,” said Denise Cole, an advocate for Newark’s traditional schools, near the end of the 80-minute meeting. But, she added, “If we wouldn’t have come, y’all wouldn’t have had nobody here.”

The unusually low turnout soon sparked rumors that some unnamed entity had packed the guest list to block others from attending. Both charter critics and supporters said they were unable to register because the sign-up list quickly reached capacity. (A state spokeswoman said Tuesday that unregistered guests would not have been turned away, though it appears not many people knew that.)

The kerfuffle could be seen as a microcosm of the charter-school debate in Newark, where reliable information can be elusive and deeply held convictions are often paired with deep suspicions.

It also added to the uncertainty surrounding the state’s charter tour. The education department announced the campaign last month as a way to gather feedback on the publicly funded, privately operated schools that educate just over 3 percent of New Jersey students but roughly 35 percent in Newark. The tour has included schools visits, invite-only focus groups, and public forums like the one Monday.

It comes amid a “comprehensive review” of the department’s charter-school policies ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy, who has been far more ambivalent about the schools than his charter-friendly predecessor, Chris Christie. Murphy has floated a pause on approving new charter schools during the review, which prompted fears of a “stealth moratorium” this year after Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet rejected every application to open new charters schools except one. Repollet has denied that a moratorium is in place, but said he plans to “modernize and change” the state’s more than 20-year-old charter rules.

The vague messages out of Trenton have given advocates on both sides of the charter debate hope that their input during the listening tour might help convince the state to take either a friendlier or tougher stance toward the sector. Yet, on Monday, officials were reluctant to say whether the feedback they were gathering would have any impact on their policy review.

“We’re just getting feedback, period,” said Carmen Cusido, director of the education department’s public affairs office. The agency expects to release a report in early 2019 summarizing the responses to its questions about how the state oversees charter schools. The public can also submit comments online.

In addition to Monday’s forum, officials visited People’s Prep Charter School and held focus groups in Newark hosted by the Newark Teachers Union, which has opposed the charter sector, and several groups that represent it, including the New Jersey Charter School Association, the Newark Charter School Fund and North Star Academy Charter School. Those sessions were open only to guests invited by the host organizations.

At the union’s meeting and Monday’s forum, as well as in interviews with advocates, several themes emerged. They point to still-simmering debates about Newark charter schools that are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Expansion — should the charter sector keep growing?

Newark’s charter-school sector has ballooned over the past decade.

Since 2008, the share of students who attend charters in Newark has nearly quadrupled — from 9 percent in 2008 to about 35 percent today. By 2023, that number could swell to 44 percent, according to one estimate, as the city’s charters continue to fill seats that were preapproved by the Christie administration.

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

The exodus of students has forced the district to slash services and close schools, even as its enrollment has started to rebound in recent years. Alarmed by the charter sector’s head-spinning expansion, critics point out that charter funding flows out of the district’s budget — but only the state has the authority to allow new charters or close existing ones.

“We ought to keep in mind that the original purpose of charter schools was never to create a parallel public education system that was somehow immune to oversight by local communities,” said Steve Baker, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

While some NJEA members work in charters, most are not unionized. The NJEA has called for a suspension of approvals for new charters until the state completes its policy review. And Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has called for a more lasting moratorium, saying the sector’s continued growth would “suck the life out of traditional schools.”

The state considers charter schools’ academics, finances, and organization when deciding whether to close them — a step the state has taken in Newark several times in recent years — or let them grow. Schools can ask for additional seats during their re-authorization process every five years, or in a separate expansion request. The deadline to make that request is Dec. 1.

“That’s going to be a really important decision point for the department,” said Harry Lee, interim president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, or NJCSA. “We want to make sure high-quality schools can grow.”

Performance — what have charters achieved?

Newark has one of the top-performing charter sectors in the nation.

An oft-cited 2015 study out of Stanford University found that Newark charter students, on average, made greater annual gains in math and reading than their district-school counterparts — and by a wider margin than charter students in any other major city except Boston.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Participants shared their views on charter schools with state officials at a focus group hosted by the Newark Teachers Union.

The sector continued its streak on this year’s state PARCC exams. About 60 percent of charter students in grades three to eight passed the 2018 reading tests, compared to 35 percent of district students, according to an analysis by NJCSA. In math, 48 percent of charter students were proficient versus 26 percent of district students who were. And for the first time, Newark charter students bested the statewide average in both subjects.

“In the second highest-performing state in the country, that’s insane,” said Ryan Hill, founder and CEO of KIPP New Jersey, which oversees eight Newark charter schools.

However, not all charters excelled. At least five of the city’s 19 charter operators had schools that scored below the district average. And the city’s district-run magnet schools, which admit students based on prior academic achievement, outperformed charter schools on average on the high-school English exam.

Critics are also quick to point out that the district serves slightly more students with disabilities than the charter sector and far more students who are still learning English. In 2017-18, just 1 percent of charter students had limited English proficiency, compared to nearly 13 percent of district students.

“There should be a more level playing field,” said Tina Taylor, president of the union representing principals and other administrators in district schools.

Funding — do charters get too much money or not enough?

The battle over charter schools often boils down to resources. In a state where charter funding comes out of district budgets, a boost for charter schools can feel like a loss for traditional schools.

“Money is the real issue,” said James Harris, president of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators and a graduate of Newark’s former South Side High School.

Last school year, the district expected to transfer about a quarter of its budget, or $237 million, to charter schools — up from just $60 million in the 2008-09 school year. This year, the Murphy administration added $37.5 million to the district’s budget. But that may not be enough to stave off future cuts if more students decamp for charters, carrying their per-pupil dollars with them.

Meanwhile, charter advocates are clamoring for more funding. Because charter schools are ineligible for certain types of state aid, they receive on average just 73 percent of per-pupil dollars rather than the 90 percent they are entitled to under state law, according to the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. Charter schools, unlike traditional districts, also do not get state money to pay for facilities.

However, some large charter operators also raise millions of dollars from private donors. One such operator, North Star Academy, says it uses private money for expanding schools but only public funds after they are fully grown. 

Critics complain that it can be difficult to track the flow of money through charters.

As the charter debate drags on, people on both sides say they are eager for ways to work together. At the end of Monday’s forum, Denise Cole, the traditional-school supporter, suggested forming a consortium where charter and district schools could exchange ideas.

“We can come together and compromise,” she said, “so that, in Newark, we have schools that all of our children are succeeding at.”

chronically absent

Newark’s absenteeism problem persists as thousands of students miss several days this year, new data show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León addressed ninth-graders in September. That month, about 30 percent of those students were considered "chronically absent."

Thousands of Newark students have already missed multiple school days this year, newly released data show, even as the district’s new superintendent makes improving attendance a top priority.

About one in five students missed more than a week’s worth of class during the first three months of school, according to the district data. Those roughly 8,000 students are already considered “chronically absent.”

Newark has long grappled with exceptionally high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in an academic year for any reason. Students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and greater odds of getting in trouble with the law.

The district’s new superintendent, Roger León, has promised to attack the issue — even going so far as to set a district goal of 100 percent attendance. But the new data, which León released this week, show how far the district has to go.

Nearly 9 percent of of the district’s 36,000 students have already missed the equivalent of more than two school weeks, according to the data. Those 3,200 or so students are labeled “severely chronically absent.”

Experts say that tracking and publicizing attendance data, as León has done, is the first step in combating absenteeism. Now, some district leaders are calling for the next phase of work to begin — analyzing why so many students are missing class and taking steps at the district and school level to help get them to school.

“It’s great that we have all this great data,” Newark Board of Education member Kim Gaddy said at a board meeting last month. “But if you have the data and you’re not using the data to change the situation, we won’t do any justice to our children in this district.”

Students who missed six or more school days from September through November qualify as chronically absent. If they continue at that pace, they are on track to miss the equivalent of a month or more of school by June. Students who missed 10.5 days or more during those three months count as severely chronically absent.

Attendance from Sept. to Nov. 2018. | Green = absent 0-2.5 days | Yellow = absent 3-5.5 days | Orange = absent 6-10 days | Red = absent 10.5 or more days. | Credit: Newark Public Schools

The early data show that Newark’s long-standing absenteeism patterns are continuing. The chronic absenteeism rates over the past three months were about the same as in 2016, according to the data.

The problem remains most acute among the district’s youngest and oldest students: 41 percent of pre-kindergarteners were chronically absent this November, as were 45 percent of 12th-graders. At least a third of students at five high schools — Barringer, Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, Weequahic, and West Side — were severely chronically absent last month.

While absenteeism rates varied among schools, they tended to be highest in the city’s impoverished South Ward.

“I’m concerned particularly about the South Ward,” Gaddy said at the Nov. 20 board meeting. “That’s where our children need the most assistance.”

León, a former principal who became schools chief on July 1, has already taken some early steps to improve attendance.

His most visible effort was a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five,” where he ordered every district employee to call five families before the first day of school. The campaign, for which León himself recorded robocalls to families, appears to have made a difference: 91 percent of students showed up the first day, the highest rate of the past four years, according to district data. (In 2013, when former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched her own attendance campaign, about 94 percent of students attended school the first day.)

The district also eliminated some early-dismissal days, which typically have low attendance. And students with mid-level test scores whom León has targeted for extra support have had better attendance this year than their peers, officials said.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = 0-0.5 days absent | Yellow = 1-1.5 days absent | Orange = 2-2.5 days absent | Red = 3 or more days absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

However, León hit a snag trying to enact the crux of his attendance plan — reinstating more than 40 attendance counselors whom Anderson laid off years ago to cut costs. The state’s civil service commission has said the district must offer the jobs to the laid-off counselors before hiring anyone new, León told the board — forcing the district to track down former employees who, in some cases, have moved to different states. Only eight counselors have been hired to date, but León said he hopes to fill the remaining positions next month.

Meanwhile, León is arguing that some of the responsibility for improving attendance falls on families. At November’s board meeting, he said some parents and guardians “believe that, in fact, they can keep their children home” from school. At a parent conference this month, he took that message directly to families.

“I don’t care if school ends at 10 and they’re only going to come for an hour, and half an hour is on a bus,” he told several hundred parents who showed up for the daylong summit. “When I tell you that your child is coming to school, it’s your job to make sure the child comes to school.”

Afterwards, several parents and school employees said they welcomed León’s tough talk on attendance.

“It was about parents ensuring kids are in school and they are doing good,” said Bilikis Oseni, who has a child in first grade at Camden Street School. “Attendance is very key.”

Still, Newark families face many obstacles in getting their children to school, according to a 2016 report on chronic absenteeism among young students. Parents cited a lack of school busing, asthma and other childhood health problems, and work schedules that make it hard to drop off their children in the morning. High school students listed uninspiring classes, mental-health challenges, and safety concerns when traveling to school as reasons why they don’t show up, according to a 2017 report.

At the November board meeting, several members asked León whether he planned to dig deeper into the causes of absenteeism.

“I was looking through all the statistics here in the packet,” said Andre Ferreira, the board’s student representative, who attends Science Park High School. “But there were none that looked towards having a survey of students themselves telling you why they aren’t coming to school.”

León noted that he held forums with high-school students in September where he stressed the importance of showing up. He also said he has a student-only email address that some students have used to explain why they miss school.

“So I’m gathering data that lets me know why a particular student in fact hasn’t been to school,” he said. “Ultimately, we would have to do that for every single student, in every classroom, in every grade, in every school. That’s really the work — and it’s hard to do.”

Peter Chen, who co-authored the two reports on chronic absenteeism in Newark, said the superintendent had taken a crucial first step by raising awareness about the city’s attendance challenges. The district also appears to be sharing attendance data more regularly with schools, he said.

The next step is for the district to help schools identify and assist students who are chronically absent. The central office can do that by sharing effective attendance strategies, training school workers on how to support students’ social and emotional well-being, and offering grants to fund schools’ own attendance campaigns, he added.

“This is something that requires tailored, school-level responses,” said Chen, who is a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “The district can help support some of that — but it’s not something that’s easy to impose from on high.”

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.”