race to the race to the top

Albany fails to vote on charter cap as RttT deadline passes

The state legislature failed to vote on a proposal to raise the state’s cap on charter schools today as the deadline for the federal Race to the Top competition came and went.

This meant that the state submitted its application for the federal grant program today with a nearly maxed-out cap of 200 charter schools still intact. The competition favors states without restrictions on the growth of charters.

There is much more to the content of the state’s application than the charter school dust-up. Charter school advocates and opponents argue over how much the failure to raise the cap will matter for New York’s bid for up to $700 million of the stimulus fund. Charter supporters point to statements from federal officials that suggest every point will matter in the competition, while others downplay the cap’s importance in the grand scheme of the competition.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch emphasized today that the application also includes an overhaul of teacher training, certification and the way school districts collect and track student data.

“I believe the application is eloquent and articulate and sets out a bold reform agenda,” she said. “I want to talk about what’s in this application. I want people to understand how broad it is.”

We haven’t yet seen New York’s full plan, which likely runs hundreds of pages long. But the agenda will be subject to intense scrutiny in coming months as observers take up Tisch’s call.

If New York’s plan does not make the cut for the first round of Race to the Top awards, renewed attention will also likely be focused on what changes the state might make in time for the second round deadline in June. States that do not make the first cut for grants will receive detailed feedback on how they can improve their proposals from federal education officials, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today.

And there’s no sign that Mayor Michael Bloomberg intends to abandon his push for legislative changes that could change the way teachers are hired, fired and evaluated.

As much as charter advocates want to push bills raising the cap and the mayor wants reforms, however, all attention for the immediate future will be on the budget. Charter supporters will have to devote most of their energy to fighting the governor’s plan to freeze the amount of money charter schools receive per student.

In comments on the Obama administration’s announcement today of a $1.35 billion extension of Race to the Top, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten reminded observers that much more is yet to come.

“While the president’s intention to extend Race to the Top demonstrates his commitment to making public education a national priority, all we know today about how well the program will work is that many states have submitted applications,” Weingarten said.

Here’s our live-blog of the debate in Albany over the charter cap lift.

And here’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson’s joint statement in response to the day’s outcome:

JOINT STATEMENT FROM MAYOR MICHAEL R. BLOOMBERG AND GOVERNOR DAVID A. PATERSON ON FAILURE TO BRING GOVERNOR’S BILL TO RAISE THE CAP ON CHARTER SCHOOLS TO THE FLOOR OF THE LEGISLATURE

“This afternoon New York State’s Race to the Top application was filed with the federal government.

“Today is a sad day for the children of New York, for the tens of thousands of students on wait lists for charter schools and for the thousands more who need and deserve better educational choices. We are disappointed that we may now miss out on an opportunity to receive unprecedented federal funding for our schools and our children. It is unthinkable that after being advised to make specific changes to enhance our application, the Legislative Leaders could not come to an agreement on legislation that would have significantly increased our competitiveness.

“Filing this application is in the best interest of New York’s 3 million schoolchildren and the people of New York. We have been offered a rare opportunity to receive unprecedented federal funding for our schools and our children when we need it most. As we have said throughout this process, our application is strong. But given the competitive nature of this selection process, we believe that the State Legislature should have joined our efforts to do everything in our power to ensure that New York is a true competitor for Race to the Top grants.  It is incumbent upon us as lawmakers to take any and all action necessary to succeed in a process that would reap up to $700 million in funds for education.

“On behalf of the City and the State, we want to thank Senator Dean Skelos for his efforts to pass this important legislation. In addition, we would like to thank Senators Craig Johnson, Ruben Diaz Sr., and members of the Senate Republican Conference, Assembly members Sam Hoyt and Brian Kolb and members of the Assembly Republican Conference and the other legislators who supported the Governor’s legislation which offered our State the greatest opportunity to receive Round 1 Race to the Top funding. Since introducing that bill on January 7th, the Governor met on several occasions with the Legislative Leaders, there were numerous staff meetings and the Governor’s office was open to negotiations. The Governor revised the legislation to reflect many of the concerns raised by the Leaders and their members. But, those efforts were not met halfway by our Legislative Leaders. It was not until the 11th hour that Legislative Leaders, without notice or negotiation, submitted their own bill on the Race to the Top competition – a bill that would ultimately have undermined the improvement that the Race to the Top grants intend to achieve.

“Race to the Top provides an unprecedented opportunity to reform our schools and challenge an educational status quo that is failing too many children. President Obama and Congress have provided significant financial support for school reform. This is a chance to change our schools and to accelerate student achievement, and we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that we are more than eligible to receive as much federal funding as possible as this process continues.”

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.”