Newark, NJ—The City of Newark was launched into a period of conflict after the state seized control in the spring of 1995, when a judge determined that too many of the district's schools were failing.

Determined to regain autonomy, the district set itself on a path to right itself and improve its schools.

Superintendents came and went. There was the closure of schools, a general restructuring of the district and a new enrollment system called One Newark rolled out by former superintendent of schools Cami Anderson, an appointee of former Gov. Chris Christie, who was sent in to take over Newark’s struggling school system in 2011.

Sign Up for Newark Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Since then, Newark has regained local control. Its schools and students are improving and the district now leads other comparable districts throughout the state and across the country. 

In returning the district to local control, the state board of education cited substantial progress made in recent years. 

Since 2011, the district’s graduation rate has improved nearly 20 percentage points to 78 percent and Newark now outperforms the vast majority of comparable districts in the state in reading and math, moving from the bottom third among comparable districts to outperforming 80 percent of them today.

Universal enrollment system—now rebranded as Newark Enrolls—remains a point of controversy in the district. Just Friday, City Association of Supervisors and Administrators (CASA) Vice President Walter Genuario called for a dismantling of the program.

But studies reveal that its implementation, along with the expansion of high quality schools, has helped move the district forward.

When universal enrollment initially took full effect in 2014, it was intended to provide a system to manage student enrollment across district and charter sectors, give parents access to district, charter and magnet schools and provide a fairer, streamlined process to help determine which students got into which schools.

While many urban districts have had processes for managing choice among district schools they control, universal enrollment for both district and charter schools is a much more recent phenomenon.

Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason noted the equity that universal enrollment has brought to the district.

“Universal enrollment has leveled the playing field for participating district and charter schools to the benefit of parents and students,” Mason said. “This is about equity and access to great schools, regardless of zip code or street address. Your block should not determine your blessings. By having one common application for parents to navigate options across the city, we are meeting the needs of parents.”

Features of the revamped universal enrollment system—which started in December and will end on February 16—include a common timeline across all schools for application submissions, with families submitting one application listing their school preferences for any public charter or district school in the city.

Matches are made through a common process and algorithm agreed upon by the district and participating schools, where students either accept their match or appeal and re-enter the process.

At universal enrollment's inception 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.

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.

Key improvements to Newark Enrolls were announced earlier this year, including more equitable access by providing neighborhood preference for 100 percent of district elementary schools, with students assigned to the highest-ranked school choice available.

Other improvements include increased accessibility of the online application, decreased wait times and better service at the family support center and a new, streamlined timeline that will allow parents to receive school assignments and waitlist results simultaneously.

Large urban districts and charter schools started considering universal enrollment at the beginning of the decade, with notable early adopters of the enrollment system including Denver and New Orleans in 2012 and Washington, D.C. in 2014, with Newark the fourth city to adopt the system that same year.

In Newark, universal enrollment was the centerpiece of Anderson’s One Newark reforms. 

Beginning in mid-2013, Anderson argued the need for universal enrollment, citing several factors including family demand for choice.

This demand was evidenced by response to the district’s rollout of a single enrollment for its own high schools and the high number of students—more than 10,000 at the time—on charter school wait lists.

Charter school growth was also a factor, with charter growth accelerating and market share projected to increase from 21 percent to more than one-third by 2018.

Inequitable distribution of student need was another consideration of Anderson’s, with demographic data indicating that while many charters were serving a proportionate share of high-need students, the charter sector as a whole was not.

Anderson proposed that the solution to these issues would include a single application that served to eliminate barriers to high-quality schools and a family ranking system that gave families an opportunity to list schools in order of personal preference, including factors such as quality, specific student need and supports and geography.

Because charter school laws never anticipated the implementation of a universal enrollment system, participation was never mandated and instead had to be a voluntary partnership with participation determined by each individual “Local Education Agency” (LEA), both charter and district.

In order to achieve this participation, district officials partnered with the Newark Charter School Fund (NCSF) and several key charter representatives to form the Policy Development Committee (PDC), which developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to detail the universal enrollment system.

“Schools now share a common set of rules, deadlines and processes that are clearly communicated to families,” Mason said. “The distribution of high-needs students has become more equitable and the enrollment process has become more efficient and reliable. Because of these benefits, over 95 percent of available district and charter school seats in Newark are now filled through universal enrollment.”

The original MOU began with seven guiding principles, including transparency, choice, equity, community, access, ease and reliability.

The MOU addressed the need for all participating district and charter LEAs to share a common set of rules and preferences that were clearly communicated to families, that the primary determinant of where students enrolled and what school best met the needs of students should be the family’s choice and that the distribution of high-needs students should be equitable across all LEAs in Newark. 

The MOU also offered highest-need students with greater preference to attend a school of their choice and provided students with the option of attending neighborhood schools. 

It also addressed the need for one enrollment timeline and application to make the process easier for families. 

While the guiding principles of the MOU have remained the same, there have been key improvements over time that have incorporated community and stakeholder feedback.

Altorice Frazier—a parent advocate, co-founder of Parents Engaging Parents (PEP) and co-chair of the Essex County Council For Young Children—believes that universal enrollment has provided more equitable school options for parents. 

"It's beneficial if it's done right," Frazier said. "It levels the playing field. I really believe that it ensures that kids can get into the schools that are right for them. It eliminates the lottery so now parents have the opportunity to choose the right schools for their children. It needs some improvements but it's doing what it's supposed to do. We now have due process."

But Frazier emphasized the need for parents to take an active role in the process, do their research and make informed choices about specific schools.

"Parents need to be full partners of our children's educational experience," he said. "They need to do their homework."

Mason noted the evolution of the process since its inception.

“Universal Enrollment in Newark is about meeting the needs of parents and creating ease and access to great schools across the city,” Mason said. “Parents are our partners and UE has evolved by responding to parent demand and request in three major areas: neighborhood preference, sibling preference and access to online portal to better navigate options.”

Grade-level participation has now been expanded to include pre-kindergarten and non-Newark residents are now allowed to apply to Newark schools through the UE system and are placed once Newark residents have been matched.

In addition, several enhancements have been made to the ranking and matching algorithm based on family and school feedback, including sibling preference—families can now link siblings who are applying to attend new schools together.

The original high-need cap was also eliminated—if a school’s high-need population exceeds the citywide population, high-need students can still be placed in the school if ranked as part of their list on applications.

“From the beginning, the choices that families make for which schools can best meet their needs was the primary determinant in matching students,” Mason said. “What’s been improved is that now families can indicate if they want siblings to be matched to the same school. The neighborhood preference is also stronger. Now, 100 percent of seats at K-8 schools are reserved for nearby children, so more students are matched to schools close to their home. As a result of all these improvements, now more than 75 percent of families receive one of their top three choices each year.”

Mason also cited increased assistance at the Family Support Center.

Information about the process has also been shared on a number of platforms, such as enrollment events and open houses. A kindergarten enrollment event was recently held for parents to learn about the transition process.

In addition, a Family Enrollment Portal launched in May provides parents with the ability to directly address many of their enrollment needs online and 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.

“Universal enrollment was and remains about parents having equitable access to great schools across the city regardless of zip code and is the logical response to the growth of public charter, district, and magnet school options in many cities, including Newark, over the past decade,” Mason said. “Returning to a multitude of separate enrollment systems would be unmanageable, inefficient, and inequitable for families and schools alike. We will continue to work with parents and schools to improve universal enrollment and make it the best it can be.”