come on everybody let's rally

Spike in anti-school closure protests begins to heat up the winter

Students and teachers protest the proposed closure of Jamaica High School on Wednesday. Photo courtesy William McDonald.
Students and teachers protest the proposed closure of Jamaica High School on Wednesday. Photo courtesy William McDonald.

Tis the season to light candles, exchange gifts, visit family — and protest school closures?

Last week marked the beginning of what promises to be an unusually heated season of rallies organized by opponents of the city’s plan to close 20 schools.

Some activists point to a heightened sensitivity around this year’s school closings. But the spike in public demonstrations may also be due to changes in school governance law that has required DOE officials to explain and defend their closure proposals in public, where those decisions were once made behind closed doors.

“I think the amount of activity this year is definitely unusual,” said parent activist Leonie Haimson. “Among people who pay attention to these things, I think there’s an overwhelming sense of enough is enough and an attitude that we’re going to fight back.”

This afternoon, teachers union head Michael Mulgrew will join parents and City Council members to protest school closings on the steps of Tweed Courthouse.

Last week, hundreds of students, parents and teachers rallied against the closure of Jamaica High School in Queens. Smaller protest gatherings were also held at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, Metropolitan Corporate Academy and Maxwell High School in Brooklyn. Much of last week’s four-hour-long citywide school board meeting was spent in public comment session as students and teachers vented their frustration at the proposed school phase-outs.

And in the new year, the frequency of demonstrations against closings is expected to increase. According to a list of demonstrations circulated by the city teachers union, events are being planned at schools slated for closure for nearly every weekday during the first two weeks of the year. Members of an internal opposition group within the UFT have begun to organize a January protest at City Hall or at the residence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A UFT official said union representatives met with teachers at all of the schools facing closure, offering support to anyone who wanted to fight. Teachers at more than half the schools accepted the offer, he said. Some teachers, such as those at Jamaica, used UFT phone banks to encourage parents and teachers to attend Wednesday’s rally against closing the high school.

Schools were given more advance warning because of a newly-mandated 45-day comment period before a final decision can be made, Haimson said. Public hearings now required to be held at each school slated for closure give opponents a natural platform for organized protests. And the January 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting, the first public vote on school closures since the DOE began shuttering schools in the 2004-05 school year, will likely draw teachers and families from all over the city to Brooklyn Tech’s thousand-seat auditorium.

Haimson said that while the changes in governance laws have made a difference, a more important factor has been an increased awareness of the consequences of school closures for students and teachers. “The first few rounds, there wasn’t enough of an understanding about the effects of the situation,” she said.

Norm Scott, an activist and member of an opposition party within the UFT, said that an increase in the number of schools slated for closure may correspond to an increase in protests. The DOE announced plans to shutter 20 schools this year, more than in previous rounds — last year, 12 schools began to phase out, and 15 the year before that.

Scott also said there may also be a greater level of surprise at which schools were selected in this round of closings. “Now what they’ve done is take schools where people are really shocked,” he said. Some of the schools slated for closure have received bonuses for the past two years for reaching their performance targets on state tests, and other schools with lower graduation rates dodged the ax.

Each round of school closings has been controversial. A DOE official said that opposition against closures this round has not reached the level it did last year, when a group of parents, community leaders and the UFT sued to prevent the DOE from closing three elementary schools and replacing them with charter schools. The DOE backed off that plan in April.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which will have the final say on each school’s closure, has never voted down a DOE proposal. But last week the DOE withdrew a proposal to eliminate the sixth grade from a Bronx school after parent and community members protested.

Klein told reporters earlier this month that there was a chance that public feedback could change the minds of DOE officials. “These are well thought-through decisions, but I don’t foreclose the possibility based on what we hear that we’ll come to a different final decision,” he said.

Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.

Referendum Results

Election results: Newark voters stick with an elected school board, NJ voters approve $500 million for schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A voter casts his ballot in Newark's Central Ward on Tuesday.

Newark voters decided Tuesday that the power to choose school board members should remain in their hands, not the mayor’s.

In a referendum held during Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters overwhelmingly opted for an elected school board over one appointed by the mayor. Their decision comes less than a year after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district, putting the nine-member board back in charge of New Jersey’s largest school system and its nearly $1 billion budget.

Statewide, voters narrowly authorized the state to borrow $500 million to pay for the expansion of vocational programs, school security upgrades, and improvements to schools’ water infrastructure. The money for career training will only go to county-run schools and colleges — a boon to those schools, but a potential threat to the district if it leads more students to opt for vocational-technical schools over traditional high schools.

As a result of Newark’s school-board referendum, which was required by state law, voters will continue to elect board members and approve the district’s budget. That outcome was widely expected. The Newark Teachers Union and prominent politicians — including Mayor Ras Baraka, who championed the district’s return to local control — had all urged voters to stick with an elected board.

In a pre-election message posted on the city’s website, Baraka said that allowing the mayor to handpick board members would give him “enormous direct power over education in Newark.”

“I do not want that power,” he said. “I want the people to have that power.”

Also on Tuesday, New Jersey voters re-elected U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, over his Republican rival, Bob Hugin. The high-profile race, which flooded the airwaves with bitter attack ads, drew a large number of voters to the polls despite heavy rain throughout the day.

However, some Newark voters said they were surprised to find questions about school funding and board elections on the ballot when they arrived at their polling sites. Debora Walker, a poll worker at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark’s Central Ward, said she had not seen any ads or information about the two education-focused questions before Nov. 6.

“I didn’t hear anything about any question,” she said. “Just a lot of mudslinging.”

In February, the state put Newark’s school board back in charge of the district, ending 22 years of state control when the board had only advisory powers. Now, the board is once again responsible for selecting the superintendent and overseeing district spending, hiring, and policymaking.

When districts return to local control, state law mandates that voters be given the choice between an elected or mayor-appointed board. Proponents say that granting mayors control of schools forces them to prioritize education because it hitches their political fortunes to the fate of the school system.

But the vast majority of boards nationally and in New Jersey are elected, which most voters are reluctant to change. Newark’s board has been elected since 1982 — and many observers doubted that voters would trade it for an appointed board just as the city regained control of its schools.

“At this particular time, people have a heightened sense of, ‘No, we’re not letting anyone else be in charge,’” said Mary Bennet, a former Newark principal who led a group that advised the district on its return to local control. With an elected board, voters will know that “what they say counts — and people they elected, they can hold them accountable for how they sit up there and vote.”

The statewide ballot measure that voters approved allows the state to issue $500 million in bonds.

Of that amount, $100 million will go to districts to improve the quality of their schools’ drinking water. In 2016, Newark was forced to replace pipes and water fountains in dozens of schools after their water was found to contain high levels of lead. Because most of that remediation has already been completed, it’s unclear how much of the $100 million Newark would be eligible to receive.

Another $350 million is allocated for county vocational programs and school security upgrades, such as new alarm systems. The bond act does not say how that amount will be divided.

The county vocational-technical schools will use their share of the money to expand programs that let students study trades, such as manufacturing and medical technology, while also earning high-school diplomas. In 2017, about 10 percent of Newark students chose to attend one of Essex County’s four “vo-tech” schools over one of the city’s district or charter high schools.

While the bond act was being crafted, some critics noted that it does not set aside any money for the vocational programs that some district high schools offer. Vocational programs at traditional high schools are open to all students, whereas vo-tech schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors.

Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said the county schools desperately need more funding to meet the demand from students. Last year, the schools had nearly 17,000 more applicants than available seats.

“Enrollment has been growing,” she said, “and the vocational schools are turning away more students than they can admit.”

This story has been updated with results of the statewide bond referendum.