Fine Print: Newark and Charters Set Up Universal Enrollment System

Landmark agreement would give preference to high-needs students picking their schools

Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson
What it is: The 11-page memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Newark Public Schools and 16 charters — 76 percent of the city’s total — sets up a central enrollment system for both district schools and participating charters for the 2014-2015 school year.

What it means: Called “One Newark” and first announced last spring, the enrollment system administered by the district will essentially allow families a one-stop location to pick their preferences for schools, whether they’re in the neighborhood, across town, or an independent charter. The MOU wrapped up in the past two weeks is notable for the preferences it gives to high-needs students — special education, high poverty, and other disadvantages.

Quote “At its core this amazing achievement represents a very simple goal — to ensure that all students in Newark can attend an excellent school,” said Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, the architect of the plan. “Together, public and charters, have done something that no other city in the country could agree to — to move beyond individual priorities and create a customized plan that serves all of our families.”

How it works: Modeled after similar programs in Denver and New Orleans, the MOU calls for charters to essentially give up control of their enrollments, an annual process that typically involves applications, lotteries, and waiting lists. With One Newark, families would list their top eight preferences for schools, and using a complex algorithm that weighs location, need, and other factors, the district would place the students.

Charter buy-in: It is a significant agreement for charter schools, where enrollment is their life-blood, both in terms of student and the financing that follows them. It also gives preferential treatment to the highest-needs students, which critics contend are too few in charter schools, potentially bringing big changes to their populations. Further, the charters infamous waiting lists should all but disappear.

Big names in and out: Some of the district’s most notable charter schools have agreed to the first year, including the high-scoring TEAM network of charters and the North Star Academy schools. A few big names also have declined to join, including the Robert Treat Academy Charter School and the Discovery Charter School, among the very highest performers.

Quote in favor: “Charter schools get into this work to serve children in a high-quality way,” said Mashea Ashton, director of the Newark Charter School Fund, which helped design and broker the deal. “They didn’t get into this to control their enrollment systems. And many of the charters on board understand the benefits of this.”

Quote against: Discovery Charter School opted out after what it said were problems in a similar centralized system that enrolled students into their district high schools of choice last year. “I didn’t want to join any system that governs my enrollment that works like that,” said Irene Hall, co-leader and founder of Discovery. “I just don’t have the faith they will be able to implement it.”

A matter of space: The agreement does not address what charters would get out of the deal — specifically, potential access to district space. A spokesman for Anderson yesterday said that was not part of this agreement, but the superintendent has said she would be more willing to cooperate with charters that are cooperating with the district.

Still a few questions: One Newark will start in earnest in January and February, when students can start signing up, and the proof will be in the implementation. Placement offers are planned for April. Some questions have been raised as to whether the new system is legal under the state’s charter school law, which has no accommodation for something like One Newark.