ok computer

Harlem Success Academies lottery low-key, but high-tech

Yesterday evening, in a tiny room on the second floor of a Harlem school building, staff of the Success Charter Network of charter schools admitted 1,100 students for next year — in just over an hour.

Charter school lotteries have a reputation for being emotional public spectacles. Last year, thousands of Harlem Success Academy hopefuls filled the Fort Washington Armory for what was part enrollment event and part political rally led by the network’s controversial director Eva Moskowitz.

But many charter school admissions decisions are actually computer-generated, made in private days or even weeks before names of admitted students are announced at public events in front of anxiety-ridden parents. And this year, Moskowitz’s network, which currently runs four schools and is set to open three more in Harlem and the Bronx this fall, has quietly scrapped its boisterous public event. Instead, parents will be notified of the lottery’s results by mail, online and through a phone hot-line next week.

Success Charter Network spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis said the public event was abandoned because the sheer number of applicants — nearly 7,000 for 7 schools this year — would overwhelm organizers and because of tighter school budgets this year. Leaders of the network may also be feeling camera-shy this year after a winter of intense public scrutiny of charter schools and accusations that Moskowitz’s schools benefit from favoritism from Chancellor Joel Klein.

Yesterday, Matt Zacks, a software programmer from the educational data software company InResonance, peered at a large computer monitor filled with tables and lists of names. A smattering of Harlem Success staff, parents and visitors munched pizza and watched over Zacks’ shoulder as he moused and clicked through the lists.

“Here are the 6,095 applicants,” Zacks said, excluding the nearly 900 who applied after the April 5 deadline and who will be added to the end of the wait list. “And now we are going to check a button to make the names anonymous.” With a click, each applicant’s name was replaced with a randomly-assigned number. Then the list was reshuffled into numerical order.

Next, with a few keystrokes, Zacks launched the lottery for Harlem Success Academy 1’s kindergarten class. Though charters are legally required to select students through random lottery when applications exceed open spots, they must also give preference in the lottery to certain groups of students. This means the computerized selection program must make several sweeps through the list of students, picking out first students who fall into several preferred categories.

The first pass pulled out and listed all applicants with a sibling already enrolled in the school. A small counter box displaying the number of remaining seats in the class clicked down. The next pass-through picked the students who live in the school’s district and who are also “at-risk,” which the school defines as English language learners and students zoned for schools the state has designated as failing. Next up, at-risk students who live outside the district, and the next sweep ranked the remaining in-district students. Then finally, all the students passed over in previous rounds got their rankings.

With one more button click, the list of admitted students and a long wait list appeared on the screen and was saved and printed. The whole process took minutes for each grade.

The days of pulling names out of a box or a raffle drum are long gone for many city charter schools. Some high-profile charters attract thousands of applicants, and the task of sorting the applications by a school’s admissions preference criteria and pulling each name out one by one can be unwieldy and error-prone. Harlem Success pulled names the old-fashioned way in its first year, Moskowitz said. “You’d make more mistakes, paging through scraps of paper,” she said. “Pieces of paper would stick together.”

So in its second year, Moskowitz hired InResonance, a company that specializes in admissions and enrollment software, to custom build an lottery program for the Success Charter schools. InResonance works primarily with private schools, but in addition to Harlem Success, it also works with the Ross Global Academy Charter School in New York City. The Success charter schools’ program, with its anonymity and layers of preferences, is one of the most complicated pieces of admissions software InResonance has customized, Zacks said.

“This is pretty unique,” he said. Most schools are able to use their programs without him coming for an on-site visit. “This is the only time I do this, ever,” he said.

In a corner, Ny Whitaker and Phillip Nelson, both parents of second graders at two different HSA schools, traded anecdotes from their own experiences with the lottery. Now the heads of the parent groups at their respective schools, the two watched the process as proxies for the thousands of families who applied for a spot at the school.

“So many people have questions about the way it works, it’s good to be able to say, ‘I’ve seen it,'” Whitaker said. The lower-key admissions event might be easier on parents and students not accepted, she said.

“I think people are looking more for transparency,” Nelson added.

At 7:09 p.m., the computer generated its last lists of newly-admitted students for the new Bronx Success Academy 2. “That’s it,” said Holly Saso, the network’s assistant director of enrollment. “We just admitted 1,100 students,” she said to a teacher who passed by and poked her head in the door.

Sabrena Silver, an attorney who was recruited to be the lottery’s official outside observer by an acquaintance affiliated with the network, pored over the results with Zacks and Saso. The three matched the numbers of admitted students to the schools’ stated numbers of open seats. Then she signed the form.

“There you go,” said Saso. “Your magic signature makes it all official.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”