Education

Universal enrollment credited for district-wide improvements but debate continues

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The website for Newark Enrolls universal enrollment has assisted thousands of Newark families during the enrollment period, which opened in December and will end on Friday, February 16. Credits: Newark Enrolls
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NEWARK, NJ--When former superintendent of Newark Public Schools Cami Anderson introduced One Newark In 2013, critics called out the superintendent for her haphazard implementation of a universal enrollment system that eliminated neighborhood schools and assigned students by a citywide lottery to both traditional and charter schools.

But district officials say that recent improvements to universal enrollment —now rebranded as Newark Enrolls—have created more equitable access to schools while shifting enrollment policy to ensure that 100 percent of the seats in each elementary school go to families who live in the neighborhood or have a sibling at the school.

Previously, a small percentage of all elementary school seats were left open to a random lottery.

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The district announced earlier this year key improvements to the enrollment process, including an improved guidebook with more information and data, increased communication with families about the process with the launching of an informational video and other materials, and a Family Enrollment Portal that allows families who are new to Newark, late to the process or want to switch schools to do so from their home or closest school.

“Universal enrollment as a concept has often been misunderstood," said Newark Public Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf.

"Put simply, it is a common enrollment system for student applications and school assignments, designed to give families an opportunity to choose a school that best suits their child’s needs," Cerf said. "In the last two years we have worked very hard to partner with community members to both clarify the purpose of the system and to make incremental improvements.”

Last year, the school board adopted a resolution to permanently dismantle One Newark, although the measure was ultimately withdrawn when no policy was set forth to replace the system. 

School board member Reginald Bledsoe said the board has no plans to put forth a resolution this year to dismantle universal enrollment, though it's permanency is far from guaranteed. 

"The focus right now is local control," he said. "Who knows once the transition plan is done."

School board Vice Chair Tave Padilla--one of only two board members to vote against last year's resolution to dismantle the process-- said universal enrollment should be kept in place.

“I will not do away with Newark Enrolls,” said Padilla, one of only two board members who voted against the resolution. “If you’re going to do away with it, you need an alternative. As of today, we have nothing in place to replace it.”

But Bledsoe said the enrollment system doesn't work.

"It has done more harm than good," Bledsoe said. "We changed the name of it but we constantly see it's not working. We need to go back to the old days where you walk up the street and enroll your child. That worked for decades. There is a systemic problem that in order for it to succeed, you need to replace it."

When One Newark first took full effect in 2014, it was intended to give parents access to all types of public schools in Newark – magnet, district or charter – with a fairer, streamlined process to help determine which students got into which schools, as well as offering an easier online application.

But the rollout of One Newark caused an immediate firestorm, with the district thrown into chaos and Anderson alienating many of her former allies.

The controversial plan was blamed for mass firings of school administrators and teachers--between 2011 and 2015 the district saw a 60 percent turnover of school principals--and the closure of district schools, with charter critics decrying the city’s increased reliance on charter schools.

The new enrollment process also led to a number of civil rights complaints.

Just weeks after the One Newark rollout, newly-elected Mayor Ras Baraka—a fierce and vocal opponent of Anderson throughout his campaign—continued to call for Anderson’s resignation, stating in an open letter that Newark schools were being failed.

“Our schools have been attacked by a narrow reform agenda that amounts to nothing more than chaos, graft, and mis-education,” Baraka said in 2014.

Baraka demanded that Anderson step down, calling her out for "blatant disregard" of the Newark community.

Many agreed at the time that the rollout of the enrollment system was flawed, noting an overall lack of communication on the part of Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 to take over Newark’s struggling school district. Anderson resigned in June 2015, eight months before her contract was to expire.

Padilla acknowledged the initial upheaval after the launch of the district-wide enrollment system.

“Kids in different wards were going to other wards and siblings were separated in different schools,” Padilla said. “They were sending kids to different schools out of their wards. Parents were unfamiliar with the system and confused by it.”

Padilla said although the enrollment process has dramatically improved, there are still calls in the community to dismantle the system.

 “I think they want to go back to the old days in Newark, back to the 80s,” he said. “If you’re going to displace kids and do away with it, then tell me,” he said. “Give me a plan. There is a percentage of parents that are not satisfied with it, but there is a vast majority that are satisfied.”

School board member Josephine Garcia said that as a parent, she has gone through the enrollment process herself.

"It was a disaster three years ago but this year there are less complaints," she said. 

Garcia said for now, she is in favor of keeping the system in place.

"How can we dismantle it?" she said. "We have to keep it at this point. Where are all those kids in the South Ward going to go?" she said, noting that many South Ward schools were closed upon One Newark's launch. "We just need to discuss how to improve upon it and use best practices."

Garcia believes the enrollment process should begin sooner, however, noting the district should start enrollment in September or October instead of in December.

Although historically families who wanted their children to attend a neighborhood school have been admitted more often than not, many schools had more applicants than seats before the implementation of Newark enrolls, particularly in the city’s East Ward.

These conditions often required parents to stand in line or invoke a political process.

Tafshier Cosby-Thomas, a Newark parent and education advocate who was trained in the One Newark enrollment process in order to help others navigate the system, said that although the rollout was flawed, there were tangible improvements from the get-go.

“It effectively stopped the waiting lists for charter schools and it really did give parents a choice,” she said.

Cosby-Thomas said that there were issues with the One Newark algorithm during its first year of implementation.

“You had four siblings assigned to four different schools,” she said. “I don’t know how the algorithm was pieced together but it really was flawed. That was a huge problem at the beginning. Now, everyone I know gets their kids into their preferred schools.”

Lack of information was another issue, according to Cosby-Thomas.

“There was no community discussion when it was first implemented,” she said.

The appointment of Cerf in 2015 helped usher in vast improvements in the districts in general, and to the enrollment process in particular.

Since then, the district has made significant gains, with students making significant gains in reading and math scores, as well as improved graduation and matriculation rates in part because more students are attending better schools.

A recent study out of Harvard University reveals that implementation of reforms such as universal enrollment and the expansion of high quality schools have helped move the district forward.

When NPS launched Newark Enrolls in 2013, 75 percent of seats at K-8 district elementary schools were assigned based on sibling preference and geography, while the remaining 25 percent were assigned based on random lottery that considered students from both inside and outside the neighborhood on equal footing.

In the 2016-17 enrollment cycle in which nearly 13,000 Newark students participated in Newark Enrolls—a record high--the district increased geographic preference to 85 percent geographic preference.

Last year, 100 percent geographic preference was applied, giving students with siblings or those living in the neighborhood priority to a school before others from outside the neighborhood were considered. This policy change led to 98 percent of incoming kindergarten students being matched to the district school of their choice in their own neighborhoods.

Charles Love, a volunteer parent advocate at the district's Family Support Center who has been deeply involved in Newark's education sphere, said the enrollment process was flawed at rollout and still has a long way to go.

"I went to W. Kinney St. and raised hell," he said, referencing the Family Support Center location. "It made no sense. I knew kids from the South Ward being bussed to the West Ward. It's still the old system on steroids. We need to have an audit to identify high performing schools. The system is not equitable for everyone. It's really about who knows what and comes down to whether the parent is savvy or a bulldog. When it comes to our parents, we're still using antiquated systems."

Love also noted families are still in the dark about the process.

"The marketing campaign is not as robust and engaging as it should be," he said. "It's a great idea but it's not implemented well. We can do this but we gotta get out of the way and let the parents drive the car."

Matthew Frankel, a Newark strategist who served for eight months as Anderson’s communications director before resigning during the rollout of universal enrollment, said while initial implementation of the system was flawed, the process has come a long way and has been a key component to restoring local control to the district.

“We have to acknowledge that the initial rollout of Newark’s Universal Enrollment provided little transparency or community input,” Frankel said. “There was a lot of disorganization and confusion. It was a real shame and many district staff and parents were rightfully angry and frustrated. However, thanks to a new superintendent and mayor, the community came together to right the ship and what has been built since that time is a fair, transparent, community-based program that has not only been embraced by parents, but served as a key anchor to getting local control. Hopefully, that initial window, from years ago, will not cloud the many changes, modifications, outreach and improvements that have made."

Executive Director of Student Enrollment, School Planning and Data Transparency Kate Fletcher said the district is excited to launch the enrollment process with a citywide Pre-K-12 school fair on December 9th.  

“This year we are focused on improving families’ experiences by providing more resources than ever before," she said. "We will also build on changes made in recent years by continuing to prioritize all elementary school seats for siblings and for neighborhood students, and by closely reviewing all school placements for students who require special services. We encourage all Newark families interested in a new school to learn more about the process."

Fletcher noted that families can get assistance with the process through the district's enrollment videos and by exploring school options through the district guidebook, as well as by attending the school fair or visiting the Newark Enrolls website.

Enrollment will end on Feb. 16, with families notified of school placements on April 20.

Executive Director of Family Support Samantha Arrona said that Family Support staff has worked hard since the last enrollment period to continue to improve on the enrollment experience.

“The Family Enrollment Portal, which was introduced this past spring, allows families to enroll directly in schools during the school registration period," Arrona said. "This has not only provided families with real-time access to school options, it has also led to shorter wait times for families during peak times. We also added more capacity, which will allow our team to review each case in more depth and provide more families with comprehensive solutions that meet the needs of their children.”

The portal, which launched in May, provides parents with the ability to directly address many of their enrollment needs online without having to travel to the Family Support Center. The portal also allows families who arrive in Newark after the application period has ended to enroll in a school of their choosing online. Families can also change schools online.

Nearly 2,500 people accessed the portal in the first two weeks alone.

Director of Newark Enrolls Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon said the launch of the online portal has dramatically improved the enrollment process.

“When they miss the traditional application window, our families have shared with us that they would still like to be able to enroll in school directly from their home or in locations that are close to their home,” Ramos-Solomon said. “The family enrollment portal will allow them to do just that. While the Family Support Center will continue to handle appeals and unique cases, those who simply want to enroll in a school that has space will now be able to do so on a smartphone, their home computer, or at their closest neighborhood school.”

Other cities who use a citywide enrollment system include Camden, New York, Denver and Washington D.C. 

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