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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.”

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”