NEWARK, NJ - The Newark Public School District is pledging to increase student opportunities to attend college by starting to work with children while they are in in middle school.

The push by Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León comes amid a study from Rutgers University - Newark, which found disparities between public comprehensive schools and charter, public magnet and private schools when it comes to students enrolling in college.

“We can't have seniors in high school worrying about college in their senior year,” Leon said to a room full of reporters today at city hall. “Arguably, junior year is too late as well. Access to college in the middle grades will be the focus in this school district. The game changer for us in Newark is providing access to college to our sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

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“That work begins just in a few weeks for 1,100 eighth graders with the administration of the PSAT-8,” León said.

Leaders from private, county and charter schools today also committed to enrolling more students in college. They, along with León, signed a joint statement at city hall promising to share best practices across all school sectors.

The goal? Use that data to find ways to help students who face difficulties in obtaining a college degree.

HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE OUTCOMES STUDY

Newark City Learning Collaborative and Rutgers - Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration followed 85 percent of all city high school students from public, private, county and charter schools between 2011 and 2016. The study reported on college enrollment, persistence in college and completion rates.

MORE: Take a deeper dive into the study

Of the schools included in the study, comprehensive highs chools had the lowest percentage of students (about 40 percent) immediately go to college after high school. KIPP NJ, a charter school, had the highest percentage of students (about 84 percent) immediately going on to a higher education institution.

Public magnet schools in the city, which are more selective than comprehensive schools, also fared better. About 75 percent of public magnet school students immediately enrolled in college, followed by St. Benedict's Preparatory School at 73 percent and Essex County Vocational Technology Schools at 63 percent.

STARTING THE PSATs IN MIDDLE SCHOOL

The PSAT that is taken in a student’s junior year determines what type of scholarship money they can get when they apply for colleges in their senior year, León said at the school board meeting last night.

“When I shared this with the seniors, they were shocked,” said León, who met with seniors during a tour of schools on the first day of the academic year. “The seniors were shocked at the fact that they did not take the PSAT and get scholarship money. That if they did not sit junior year, that that was it.”

The SATs taken by seniors, meanwhile, do not determine scholarship money. Instead, that test is only used by colleges in the admission process.

MORE: Newark Public Schools Begin First Full School Year Under Local Control

So, León is getting students ready to score high on the PSATs in their junior year by having students as young as eighth grade take the exam. Freshman, sophomores and juniors will also take the PSAT in October.

Only certain eighth graders would qualify to take the test. Students in the eighth grade who passed at least one section of the PARCC exam in grade 7 would qualify, León said.

According to Leon, 1,100 students in the eighth grade did that.

It’s not unusual for students in other municipalities to take the PSATs in the eighth grade.

“You go to Montclair, you have students that are in eighth grade sitting for the PSAT. You go to Livingston, you have eighth graders sitting for the PSAT,” León said after the city hall press conference today.

“This is Newark. We will have eighth graders sitting for the PSAT. The days that people look at Newark as being less than, those ended.”

BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN MAGNET AND COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOLS

León wants to level the playing field at magnet and comprehensive schools too. He plans to partner three underperforming comprehensive high schools - Malcolm X Shabazz, Weequahic and West Side - with three magnet schools - Technology, Science Park and American History.

Academies will be created at the three comprehensive schools to match the professional development that is occurring at the magnet schools, León said at the school board meeting last night.

“There are two partners that will be assigned to every academy at every school,”  León said of the three comprehensive schools. “There will be a higher education partner and there will be a professional organization that partners with that school and validates everything that is going to come out of that academy.”

The concept of academies already exists at high schools in Newark. Central High School, for example, has academies for pre-engineering, social justice, dentistry and environmental studies. Freshmen at the end of the year must select an academy and take two electives geared towards that subject each year.

Any academy that currently exists must go through a formal process defined by the superintendent. Principals will have to write curriculum and prepare their budgets in order to get approval from the school board in the early spring, León said.

REACHING OUT TO THE COMMUNITY

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka looked on today as León and leaders from Essex County Schools of Technology, St. Benedict's and Kipp NJ charter schools signed the joint agreement today. Students from each of those schools were tracked in the Rutgers study.

Just 19 percent of Newark residents earned an associate degree or higher in 2017, compared to 45 percent of all New Jersey residents, according to NCLC, one of the organizations behind the study.

For Baraka, today’s agreement between all sectors of education in Newark will help him to achieve his Newark 2020 vision. The initiative partners with community groups to connect 2,020 unemployed Newark residents to work by 2020.

“When we say Newark 2020, we need our corporations to hire more Newark residents,” said at city hall. “We have to prepare the Newark residents to get those jobs that we're demanding that the corporations give to our residents.”

Baraka unveiled another goal today too. He said in a statement following the press conference that he wanted to increase the number of Newark residents with college degrees and post-secondary certificates by 25 percent by 2025.

The agreement that was signed today by school leaders made no mention of that specific target.

Meanwhile, a series of public discussions about student outcomes will be held in each ward of the city. Locations for the North, South and Central wards are still being finalized. The following locations have been announced: 

1. East Ward roundtable

Oct. 2 from 6 to 8 p.m.

East Side High School (238 Van Buren St.)

2. West Ward roundtable

Oct. 17 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Jehovah-Jireh Praise and Worship Church Center (505 S. 15th St.)

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