As schools' closure hearings begin, their students get a way out

Students who attend schools the city is shuttering for poor performance will be allowed to leave, under a new policy that the Department of Education is rolling out at school closure hearings that begin tonight.

For the last decade, the Department of Education has closed schools — more than 150 in all — through a phase-out process in which no new students enter but existing students stay on until they graduate, up to three years after the closure decision. By the time the schools finally close their doors, only barebones staff and program offerings remain for the final students.

“The past policy was sort of like saying, ‘We’re going to get divorced in two years but we have to live together until then.’ It was not tenable,” said Clara Hemphill, who has reported about the impact of closures on schools and students as the editor of Insideschools. “It seems only fair that children should not be trapped in a school that the DOE has deemed to be failing.”

Now, the department will give each student in phaseout schools a list of higher-performing schools to which they can apply as part of the regular transfer process. When the department decides which transfer requests to approve, students from phaseout schools will be assigned first, starting with the neediest students who are looking for a new school.

With the first crack at open seats going to students in closing schools, other students eligible under federal rules to leave their struggling schools could have a harder time getting transfers.

The policy change comes as the Bloomberg administration’s school closure policies come under increasing attack — including from mayoral candidates and legislators. It also is the latest shake up of enrollment rules since State Education Commissioner John King warned the city that its policies had created unacceptably high concentrations of needy students in low-performing schools. At many schools the city has closed, performance had fallen as populations of English language learners, poor students, low-scoring students, students with disabilities, and overage students increased, often after other nearby schools were shuttered.

“How do we ensure where there are concentrations of [high-need students], there are adequate supports?” King said last year. “If not, how do we think about the enrollment system to make sure that students have access to schools that will provide the support that they need?”

Last year, the department committed to distributing midyear enrollees, who tend to be higher-need, across a wider array of high schools. It also pushed selective schools to admit more students with disabilities. Still, the schools it proposed for closure this year have many high-need students.

King has signed off on the new transfer policy, according to Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of school closures and new schools. He said department officials would promote the change at closure hearings that are set to take place at more than two dozen schools over the next two weeks. “We’ve got to do our job to make families know that this is an option,” he said.

Sternberg said the department made the change “because of a moral imperative we feel to provide all families with options.” He said he had been particularly struck by speaking with the mother of a third-grader at P.S. 64 in the South Bronx, where parents have asked the department to intervene in the school’s poor performance.

“This mother and child have been zoned for a school that has not been getting it done and now she will have the opportunity to exercise her right to choose a better option,” Sternberg said.

The transfer option will be extended to all 16,000 students at the 61 schools that are in the process of phasing out or will begin phasing out if this year’s closure proposals are approved next month by the Panel for Educational Policy. (The panel has never rejected a mayoral proposal.) But Sternberg said the department could not guarantee that all transfer requests will be honored.

“We do not — despite our best efforts — have the volume of quality seats that we need,” he said. “We will do our best to accommodate as many of those applicants as we can.”

Students whose transfer requests are not approved or who do not ask to change schools will still get the support they need, Sternberg said. The department groups phaseout schools in support networks that are focused on their unique issues, and officials say performance often ticks upward in schools’ final years, as students and teachers grow more focused.

Jawaun Daniels, a ninth-grader, said he would try to leave Bread and Roses High School, one of the schools with hearings tonight, if its closure is approved — “especially if the teachers get changed,” he said.

But Jaquan Strong, a 10th-grader, said he would want to say, as did Davontay Wigfall, who said he would not want to give up Bread and Roses’s basketball team.

Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who works with students in some schools that are facing closure, said she would want evidence that higher-performing students would not end up leaving most often. She also said she worried whether principals would want to take in high-need students from low-performing schools, or be able to serve those students if they did enroll.

Letting students transfer, Conway-Spiegel said, is a poor substitute for not assigning them to strong schools in the first place. “It seems like it’s too little, too late,” she said.

And Hemphill said she thought the transfer policy would be unlikely to improve conditions in the school or even for students who decamp for other environments.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Hemphill said. “The schools will be in a death spiral for a couple of years, there’s still going to be some kids to save, and it still causes lots of disruption for the kids — but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”