A growing sector

Over 40 percent of Newark students could attend charter schools within five years. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

In 2008, less than 10 percent of Newark students attended charter schools. Today, one in three does.

After a decade of explosive growth, Newark’s charter schools have morphed from a sideshow to a parallel school system. Fueled by former Gov. Chris Christie and deep-pocketed donors, their expansion offered thousands of families new school options — with more-established charters sometimes vastly outperforming their district counterparts. But the spreading sector also ensured the demise of some neighborhood schools, blew a hole in the district budget, and often provoked ferocious resistance to further charter encroachment, which helped propel Ras Baraka into City Hall.

Note: Figures exclude pre-K and include non-resident charter students. Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research, Julia Sass Rubin/Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Policy. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

The charter proliferation is far from over. Within five years, nearly 27,000 students who go to school in Newark — well over 40 percent of the total — could be attending charter schools, according to a projection by Rutgers University associate professor Julia Sass Rubin based on school expansions approved by the state.

Yet whether those projections are met will depend on demand by families, charter-school capacity, and perhaps even the political climate. Still, some district-school advocates are already bracing for the worst — including more school closures and potential service reductions — if the charter sector keeps expanding.

“It’s growing at an alarming rate,” said school board member Reginald Bledsoe. “It’s going to have an impact.”

Today, about 33 percent of students who attend Newark schools — or roughly 17,000 students — go to charter schools. (More than 1,300 of those students live outside Newark, since some charters can enroll students beyond the district.)

The state has signed off on nearly 7,000 more charter seats to be available by the 2022-23 school year, according to state data compiled by Sass Rubin, who teaches at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Policy. If all those seats are filled and district enrollment stays flat at about 34,200 students, then the share of students who go to school in Newark and attend charters could climb as high as 44 percent.

That projection — which excludes pre-kindergarten students — is based on several assumptions.

First, it assumes the district’s enrollment will remain steady — which would require the district to add new students to replace those who decamp for charters, as it has in recent years.

Second, this scenario assumes that existing charters remain open. But the state education department forced the closure of three low-performing Newark charters last year and another in January. (Those schools are excluded from the enrollment count.)

Finally, it assumes the sector will reach the full enrollment permitted by the state — which hasn’t historically been the case. This year, about 85 percent of state-approved Newark charter seats are filled, according to data provided by Sass Rubin, who is working on a statewide analysis that compares charter approvals to subsequent enrollments.

“Just because they’ve been approved,” she said, “doesn’t mean they will actually happen.”

Critics say the excess seats suggest the supply of charter schools has started to outstrip demand among families, and that charters are requesting more slots than they need.

But charter proponents push back against that claim. They point to city enrollment data showing that 49 percent of Newark families applying to kindergarten last year listed a charter school as their top choice.

Demand was highest for North Star Academy and KIPP New Jersey, which each operate several schools in Newark. More than 550 families listed KIPP as their first choice for kindergarten though only 448 seats were available across the network, which includes eight Newark schools. (Demand was also high for several district schools, including Ann Street — which had the third highest share of families rank it first — a sign that parents may care more about schools’ track records and reputations than who runs them.)

Charter operators offer several reasons why they may not fill all the seats they applied for.

Some said it made sense to stockpile extra seats during the charter-friendly Christie administration, under which the number of charter students doubled. “While the getting is good, and Christie is approving just about anything that sounds stable, why don’t we just go and apply for additional charters so we can have those in our pocket?” asked one charter leader, describing the thinking of some of his school’s board members.

Others said growth plans sometimes bump up against human limitations. In order to open a new school, charter operators must first find an ample supply of strong leaders — a challenge that can bedevil district and charter schools alike.

“When we haven’t opened in the past, it’s been because we didn’t yet have a principal that we thought was ready,” said KIPP New Jersey CEO Ryan Hill, adding that incoming principals at KIPP go through a yearlong training and school-planning process. (KIPP currently serves about 4,100 students in Newark, but has been approved to grow to 7,800 students.)

Another obstacle is securing space, as charter schools do not get state money as district schools typically do for facilities. Charters may also face political resistance: In 2012, the Newark school board voted against plans to lease four district buildings to charters — though at that time the board’s votes were non-binding.

Newark’s charter sector grew rapidly over the past decade. Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

Now that the board has regained control of the school system, it’s possible charters could have a harder time securing space in district buildings. Bledsoe, the board member, said he supports parents who choose charter schools — still, he would rather reserve district buildings for district schools.

“I don’t believe in the idea of allowing network schools to expand and we’re not expanding,” he said.

If Newark’s charters do keep spreading, more money will flow out of the district’s budget.

This school year, the district will transfer about $237 million — or a quarter of its budget — to charter schools, up from $60 million in the 2008-09 school year. Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed boosting Newark’s budget by 5 percent next year, but lawmakers must still sign off.

Newark Public Schools spokesman Paul Nedeau said the district will be able to keep investing in its schools if the state sends more money its way. He said the district is focused on “continuing to improve the quality of all schools in Newark” — charter and district — and that “the last few years show that with collaboration and thoughtful management this is an achievable goal.”

Hill of KIPP New Jersey agreed. He said his network was committed to being a “good neighbor” to the district, which was one reason why it lobbied the state for more school aid alongside Newark officials — including Mayor Baraka, who has shown a willingness to partner with the charter sector since taking office.

But even as KIPP tries to ease its impact on the district, “our first responsibility is to the families of Newark and to give them good options,” Hill said.

“If there are families who are still asking for KIPP schools that don’t have access to them,” he added, “then we’ll continue to grow.”

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Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.