PATERSON, NJ – There’s no doubt that some Paterson schools are better than others. Their test scores are higher. Their reputations are stronger. Their neighborhoods are safer.
As a result of that imbalance, Paterson’s annual school registration process has become a high-stakes contest, one in which concerned parents do whatever they can to get their children enrolled in the best schools possible. And in a city as political as Paterson is, that sometimes means asking for help from friends in high places, a practice that calls in question the fine line between political favors and constituent services.
This week, the school district’s administration sent Board of Education members an email that politely asked the elected officials to stay out of the student registration process.
“Unfortunately, it is being reported that parents are coming to the Office of Student Registration stating that they have spoken to a Board Commissioner who has checked with the school principal and were told that there is room at a certain school, and to place their child in that school,’’ said the email sent by Jacqueline Jones, chief of staff for state-appointed schools superintendent Donnie Evans.
“We are also receiving telephone calls from Principals reporting that Board Commissioners are contacting them directly instructing them to admit specific students into schools,’’ continued the email. “As you can imagine, this is causing great concern and anxiety for all. In behalf of Dr. Evans and the staff, please allow the Office of Student Registration to conduct the student registration process as they have been instructed to do.’’
Five board members interviewed by PatersonPress.com say they have not contacted any city principals about the registration process and they say they have done nothing else inappropriate when called by parents looking for help getting their children into certain schools.
“I don’t think I’m overstepping my bounds by trying to help a parent,’’ said newly-elected city schools commissioner Corey Teague. “That’s what I was elected to do, to try to advocate for the parents.’’
“If a parent calls, I’m obliged to respond and to address it to the best of my ability,’’ said Jonathan Hodges, the senior member of the school board. “I contact the administration about it. You can’t give instructions to the principals, they don’t work for us.’’
“It’s tough,’’ said school board president Christopher Irving. “On the one hand, we have constituents we’re accountable to; one the other hand, we have procedures and guidelines we have to abide by.’’
“I ask people to try to be patient and let the process work itself out,’’ said board member Manuel Martinez.
“The problem is that when parents are having some difficulty regarding the registration of their kids, because we’re elected officials, it’s easy for them to reach out to us as board members and we have to respond to the public,’’ said commissioner Errol Kerr.
Starting last year, Paterson Public Schools began operating a full, citywide choice program. Students identify their top three choices for schools and get assigned to one of them through a lottery. District spokeswoman Terry Corallo said that 1,898 of the city’s 1,907 eighth graders last spring were given their first or second choice high schools through the lottery system. That was more than 99 percent.
At the elementary school level, the choice program is not as universal. The district offers choice for some grades at some schools, Corallo said. Otherwise, students generally are assigned to their neighborhood schools, according to officials. There is a petition process through which parents can apply to have their children sent to another school if it has openings.
“But if the desired school is already at or above its capacity, then all requests for transfers cannot be accommodated,’’ said Corallo.
In many cases, officials said, parents seek extra help in getting their petitions for school transfers approved.
Shortcomings at some Paterson schools, as well as flaws in the school selection and notification process, have resulted in a large number of complaints from city parents, officials said.
“If we had a fully functional system, then there would be no need for any parents to reach out to board members to ask for help,’’ said Kerr.
“My phone is ringing off the hook,’’ said Irving. “It just shows we have to do a better job with the school choice process.’’
Most of his calls, Irving said, come from parents who are unsure about which schools their children have been assigned to attend or have not been able to get a satisfactory response from the administration when they called the district offices.
“If you want to know how bad it is, just go down to 90 Delaware (Avenue),’’ added Irving, referring to the district’s administrative offices. “You’ll find 25, 30 frustrated parents in the lobby there.’’
The crowds of parents at 90 Delaware seem larger than in previous years, officials said. That may stem from the fact that the district this year began conducting all registrations for new students at its main offices instead of at individual schools. So they must go to the board offices along with folks whose children already attended city schools but are unhappy about their placements.
“Naturally, anything new will take time for all to adjust,’’ said Corallo.
The new registrations are being handled via appointments booked in advance, Corallo said. “Each registration takes approximately 20 minutes because all new registrations must include a nurse’s review of the child’s immunization, etc.”
Classes start on September 6, which means the number of inquiries from parents likely will increase over the next week, officials said. Also, officials expect a large number of last-minute registrations from families that recently moved into Paterson.
“We do know from past history that many parents will come to us for the first time next week – but again, I must stress that these are parents who have just moved to Paterson and/or who have chosen to wait until this point to register,’’ Corallo said. “Knowing that we will have more parents who will come to register their children next week, we have assigned additional staff members to help manage the registration process.
“Moving forward,’’ she added, “we will evaluate this year’s process and we will work aggressively to ensure an even more efficient process is in place for our elementary school registrations next year.”