Relative Calm Marks Year Two of ‘One Newark,’ But Opposition Remains

John Mooney | August 13, 2015 | Education
Earlier start and more staff seem to help, although Mayor Baraka still calls for end of ‘dysfunctional’ enrollment system

A family gets school-enrollment assistance from a staffer at Family Support Center in Newark.
After last year’s tumultuous debate over the “One Newark” reorganization of the city’s public schools, there was a notable calm recently at the district’s enrollment center as families tried to navigate the system for the next school year.

Over the course of an hour on a recent weekday, a dozen families moved in and out of the newly named “Family Support Center” located in an old vocational high school, with each greeted at the door and then assigned to a staffer who would guide them through the process.

A few people who stopped outside the center afterward said they were satisfied with how it had gone so far.

“It was a very nice experience, very supportive,” said Nafisah Jefferson, the mother of two girls moving into the district for the first time after home schooling. “She actually gave us her (direct) number to contact her if we have any issues.”

Jefferson said she was given a few choices, including her neighborhood school on 14th Avenue. But she opted for Belmont Runyon School a few miles away.

The setting and atmosphere were in stark contrast to a year ago, when the first year of the new enrollment system that combined district and charter schools saw a near-frenzy at the center at the start of the school year, leaving families screaming and officials scrambling for fixes and excuses.

The first year’s rocky roll-out of the “One Newark” plan may have led to the downfall of Newark’s now-departed superintendent, Cami Anderson, who set up the districtwide system intended to give parents a choice of schools, both district and charter.

To be sure, there hasn’t been much pause in the criticism since Anderson’s departure, as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka – still calling for the end of the “One Newark” system – yesterday continued to call it “dysfunctional” and announced a city-run program to help families work through the enrollment maze.

Baraka’s plan calls for five more enrollment centers, each separate from the school district’s and located in each ward of the city.

“This is a proactive step to solving problems that have become endemic to a dysfunctional system,” Baraka said.

Yet at least for now, “One Newark” looks intact for the next year, while Anderson’s state-appointed successor, former education commissioner Chris Cerf, has taken a more deliberate approach to trying to work out the kinks, if not wholesale flaws, in the system.

[related]Cerf named a new, homegrown director for the family center, opened the facility an month earlier than a year ago, and added staff to help handle any rushes. In addition, the new superintendent has promised to ease the appeals process for families not satisfied with their school assignments, a key point of contention last year.

But fundamental components have not changed, including the controversial – and sometimes mysterious – algorithm that determines which students go where. Students are still asked to pick their top choices, with some preference given to siblings and special-needs students. Charter schools continue to be the top picks and fill up quickest, at least in some grades.

Releasing the first results from the first two rounds of sign-ups, the district said more families are getting their top choice of schools. So far, 76 percent had received one of their first three choices, compared to 64 percent last year, Cerf’s office said. Overall, more than 90 percent of students have been matched, officials said.

And Cerf was diplomatic about Baraka’s initiative, saying it was something his staff had discussed with the mayor’s staff and that it would only improve on the system.

“I support any initiative that provides parents with information and resources to help them choose a school that works best for their child,” Cerf said in a statement.

“Our teams have been in communication about this effort and we believe it will complement the work already underway at the District’s Family Support Center,” Cerf said.

Back inside the district’s center, it was a relatively sedate when a reporter visited. The seven rooms set up to accommodate families were mostly quiet, with no more than a family or two in each. Busier days could result in a brief wait, they said, but no more than 15-20 minutes.

Noreen Noel-Brooks, one of the Newark staffers working the rooms, is a 22-year veteran of the district and was eager to help. She said families came in looking for the best school possible for their children, whether district or charter.

“Most families are just looking for quality,” she said, pointing to both student performance scores but also reputation.

She said this year was obviously calmer than last year. “Last year, there was just a magnitude of change, with all the co-locations of schools,” Noel-Brooks said.

But she said the needs of families are no less urgent. One family came in from Brazil with seven children who all wanted to go to the same school. Noel-Brooks said she was able to oblige.

And there was the 20-year-old man who had dropped out three years earlier, but wanted to make a last try at a high school diploma. It worked out that an alternative program was running upstairs.

“I got up from the table and walked him upstairs to the principal,” she said with a smile of satisfaction.