As Newark Enrolls outage stretches on, families and schools start to feel the strain

The phone calls picked up this summer at Newark’s KIPP charter network, with frustrated people on both ends of the line.

Parents, left in the dark by the sudden disappearance of Newark’s online enrollment management system, wondered whether their children stood a chance of making it into a KIPP school. And school employees who had a long back-to-school to-do list of their own found themselves checking the waitlist again and again.

“It’s challenging for us,” said Pedro Lebre, KIPP Newark’s enrollment manager. “We’re a pretty lean team. We spend a lot of time answering that question.”

In the recent past, parents could have logged into the city’s universal enrollment system, Newark Enrolls, to check their place on charter school waitlists, add themselves to the list, or enroll immediately in schools with open seats. But this summer, the system has been down since the beginning of July — with no indication of when it might come back online.

Considered a desirable option for Newark families, KIPP maintains a lengthy enrollment waitlist, so it’s unlikely that all schools are experiencing the same call volume. Still, KIPP’s experience suggests that the abrupt shutdown of Newark Enrolls — coming at a time when the district is working with a new vendor to redesign the system — is more disruptive than city officials have let on.

“Enrollment is open and ongoing,” Nancy Deering, acting director of communications for Newark Public Schools, wrote in an email to Chalkbeat last week. “Interested families should visit the Family Support Center at 765 Broad Street.”

It took Newark parent Amiris Rodriguez a while to find that office on Thursday morning. She only succeeded after asking several people to point her in the right direction.

“It was confusing, and I didn’t understand,” she said. “I was just wandering around on Broad Street.”

That center is currently the only way for families seeking new or different school placements to apply for them. Slated to be shut permanently in the near future, it’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Rodriguez was on vacation and could spend a few hours on Thursday morning trying to get her children transferred to another school. Many parents can’t.

“We hear from a lot of frustrated parents because those are the exact hours that they work,” Lebre said. “We hear a lot from families who do make it over there and are told we don’t have seats and given a lot of misinformation about enrolling. It’s really difficult to troubleshoot.”

In June, the district announced plans to pay a technology firm to replace the city’s online enrollment system, which families can use to apply to any traditional school and participating charter schools. But officials did not mention that the online enrollment tool would be disabled while the district switches systems.

“Why wouldn’t they continue the old system until the new one’s in place?” asked Wilhelmina Holder, a Newark education activist.

Lebre said district officials offered some answers at a meeting with local charter operators on Friday. There, he said, Newark Public Schools Chief of Staff Havier Nazario said “a safety issue” precluded Newark Enrolls from coming back online. According to Lebre, Nazario offered several examples, including that students could be using the online portal to re-enroll in schools from which they had been expelled.

This spring, the district said a delay in sending admissions letters to families was also due to families being able to use the system to enroll in schools inappropriately.

“It’s an excuse,” Lebre said. “When you use the word safety, how do you argue against that?”

Lebre said his understanding after the meeting was that Newark Enrolls would not get turned back on anytime soon. Officials have not said publicly when they expect the new vendor, SchoolMint, to complete the updated system, but enrollment for the following year usually starts at the beginning of December.

Holder added that the district should keep the downtown Family Support Center open on evenings and weekends in order to ease the burden on working parents.

“A lot of people cannot financially take off from their jobs” in order to visit the enrollment center during business hours, Holder said. “You don’t go to work, you don’t get paid.”