Newark Enrolls

Newark’s new superintendent defended the enrollment system. Now can he make it work?

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark Superintendent Roger León

The first big test for Newark’s new schools chief was ensuring that families had a way to apply to schools. His next assignment: making sure the enrollment system works.

Superintendent Roger León, who began in July, passed the first test last month. After hashing out an agreement with charter-school leaders, he convinced the Newark school board to retain the city’s 5-year-old enrollment system for another year. The system, called “Newark Enrolls,” lets families use a single form to apply to most district-run or charter schools rather than filling out separate applications — a point León emphasized when asking reluctant board members to vote for keeping the controversial system.

On Monday, families could begin using the system to apply to schools for the coming academic year — marking the start of the next test for the new administration. Already, signs have emerged of the challenges ahead.

The district has not yet published a new enrollment guide with updated information about each school, though officials say it is coming. More pressingly, León has yet to announce a new head of the enrollment office, whose leaders he ousted during a central-office shakeup.

Charter leaders are paying close attention. Just weeks ago, when it was still unclear whether the board would vote to maintain Newark Enrolls, the sector hired one of the district’s former enrollment chiefs to develop contingency plans for a charter-only enrollment system, according to a charter memo obtained by Chalkbeat.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, said the sector was simply doing its “due diligence” to prepare for the possibility that Newark Enrolls could be scrapped. Now that it has been preserved, she said, she expects 13 of the city’s 18 charter-school operators to participate.

She added that their focus now is on how the new administration manages the system, which more than 12,000 families rely on each year to apply to more than 70 schools.

“It’s going to be a steep learning curve,” she said. “We have to be patient.”

The application period for the 2019-20 school year began Monday and continues through Feb. 15. Then a computerized system will match each student to one school based on the family’s selections, available space, and rules that give preference to certain students. Students should receive their matches by April 15.

In the past, the district has published a thick school directory to help families pick schools. Last year’s 116-page guidebook include each school’s state test results, attendance rate, and available seats, along with details about its extracurricular activities and partnerships.

Mason said she thought the book might have been delayed by negotiations between the district and charter leaders over the cross-sector enrollment agreement, which dragged on for several extra weeks this year. It was during those negotiations that the sector hired Kate Fletcher, the district’s former executive director of enrollment, to devise plans for a backup enrollment system, according to the memo.

Charter-school leaders said district officials told them they would receive one-page fact sheets about their schools to pass out at a citywide enrollment fair this Saturday. A district spokeswoman said families would receive “a guide of schools and services” at the fair.

Tave Padilla, the school board member who heads the committee that oversees enrollment, said Tuesday he was surprised to learn that the guidebook had not yet been published or posted online.

“I’m going to call NPS and ask where is that book,” he said, using an acronym for the district. “That’s very important.”

The guide is a tool for families as they apply to up to eight schools among the dozens of traditional, magnet, and charter-school options. Stacy Raheem, a staffer at Unified Vailsburg Services Organization, a West Ward community organization, said she relied on the book last year when she helped about 40 parents apply to kindergarten.

“It had different things in it that would let parents make a more informed decision,” she said.

But an employee at another preschool, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to talk to the press, said parents could manage without the directory. They can attend the enrollment fair, research schools online, or ask friends or school workers for recommendations, she said.

“All of our parents here are word-of-mouth referrals,” she added.

The district’s enrollment office has been in a state of flux since León became superintendent.

His first move as schools chief was to force out 31 top officials and administrators, including Fletcher and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, the former enrollment chief. The board blocked their firings, fearing disruptions to enrollment, but both still decided to leave.

Their departure appears to have rattled the charter sector. Charter representatives negotiated a provision into the new enrollment deal saying the district must maintain “the quality and quantity of personnel necessary” to effectively operate the enrollment system.

For now, most charter leaders are waiting and carefully watching.

Dina Velez, principal of Newark Educators’ Community Charter School in the Central Ward, said the enrollment process appears to be running smoothly so far and the enrollment office staff has been helpful.

“No system is perfect,” she said, but added, “I haven’t had a negative experience.”

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.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

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Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.