Free tuition?

Work here, enroll here: Officials want Newark teachers to send their kids to Newark schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Superintendent Roger León addressed employees at an all-staff meeting in August. León has proposed a policy change that would make it easier for district employees who live outside Newark to enroll their children in the city's schools.

UPDATED: Newark education officials think they have a solution to the problem of local teachers racing out the schoolhouse door each afternoon — free tuition for employees’ children.

According to policy, if not always practice, Newark Public Schools employees who live outside the city must fork over tuition if they want their children to attend public school in the district. While officials could not say how many employees currently pay tuition, Superintendent Roger León suggested that some staffers have transferred their children out of the district after being charged.

On Tuesday, the school board voted to eliminate those charges, adding Newark to a lengthy list of school districts across New Jersey that reduce or waive tuition fees for employees’ children. While each district sets its own tuition rate for non-residents, some affluent school systems charge more than $11,000 per student.

Newark officials argue that offering a free education to employees’ children will help with recruitment and keep teachers from rushing home each afternoon to pick up their children from school.

“The idea behind this was to motivate our staff not to leave at the end of the day,” León told the school board during its December meeting.

While the board approved the policy change at its meeting Tuesday evening, it did not publicly discuss the policy Tuesday or release the language of the revised policy.

In previous meetings, several board members expressed serious concerns about the plan, including whether it would saddle the district with new costs and force Newark residents to compete with non-residents for spots at popular schools.

The proposal has also touched on a larger debate in Newark about whether people who earn a living in the city — including educators — have a duty to live there. More than 80 percent of Newark workers live outside the city, according to one analysis. The rate is about the same for teachers, with only about a quarter of Newark teachers residing in the city, according to a former official citing an internal district analysis.

Proponents of the policy change say that, while it may be ideal for Newark teachers to live in the city, making it easier for non-resident educators to enroll their children in the city’s schools will only enhance their commitment to the district. But critics worry the proposal will encourage even more teachers to live outside Newark, depriving the city of their tax dollars and community involvement.

“I would like to see the employees actually live in Newark,” said board member Leah Owens at the Dec. 18 meeting. “That would help to really boost the city as a whole.”

The details of the enrollment policy change remain unclear. Could Newark students lose spots in sought-after schools to the children of employees who live outside the city?

“We will not bump a Newark resident to put in a non-Newark resident,” Tave Padilla, the board member who chairs the committee that oversees enrollment, said at the board’s business meeting this month. “It doesn’t work that way.”

But district officials said employees’ children would have to go through the normal enrollment process. That leaves open the possibility that magnet high schools, which screen and rank applicants, could admit some non-resident students ahead of residents.

Would state funding flow to Newark instead of the students’ home districts? A state education department spokesman told Chalkbeat that, if the board approves the policy change, the district would receive additional state funding to account for the new students.

But a district official said at the December board meeting that the funding question “requires some further research.” The official, Valerie Wilson, also warned that any funding boost would be delayed by a year because of the way the state calculates district budgets.

“The earliest that funding would appear in the budget would be September 2020,” Wilson said, even though the new students would begin this fall.

And how many students might enroll in the district if the proposal is approved? Officials have not said how many non-resident employees have expressed an interest in enrolling their children or how many — if any — currently pay tuition.

“We’ve asked them and we don’t know yet,” Padilla said in an interview. Until those and other questions are answered, he added, the proposal “is not going anywhere.”

A district spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions about the proposal, nor did Board Chair Josephine Garcia. The proposal was not listed on the board’s online agenda last month even though it was discussed and voted on at the December meeting.

Newark now joins other districts that have made it easier for non-resident employees to send their children to school in the communities where they work.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has identified more than 40 districts that offer free or reduced-price tuition for the children of employees, according to a list provided by the organization. The list is based on a review of district labor agreements, which is typically where districts establish tuition exemptions for employees, said Janet Bamford, the association’s communications manager.

Many of the districts on the list waive tuition fees for employees, while others charge employees anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of the normal rate. Still others set restrictions, such as excluding non-resident students who were removed from their previous schools for disciplinary reasons.

In the past, Newark let non-resident teachers enroll their children in the district for free, according to officials and an employee manual. It’s unclear when that changed, but board regulations now state that employees who live outside Newark must pay tuition.

Margarita Hernandez, principal of Wilson Avenue School, said she thinks making it easier for teachers to put their children in Newark schools — regardless of where they live — is a good idea.

“If they’re invested in Newark and they want their kids to attend school in Newark,” she said, “then they should be given the opportunity.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the school board approved the proposal at its Jan. 22 meeting.


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”