bonds unbound

Jobs bill clears way for $1.4 billion in school construction bonds

Here’s one way the jobs bill headed for the president’s desk today will affect New York City: it unfreezes more than $1 billion in school construction bonds the city needs to fund its capital plan.

The bonds were effectively frozen because of a significant flaw in last year’s federal stimulus bill, which set aside $22 billion over two years for school districts to sell interest-free bonds to fund school construction. As Pro Publica reported late last year, many banks refused to buy the bonds because they were funded by tax credits that investors found worthless.

The jobs bill the Senate passed today aims to solve that problem by using a direct subsidy, rather than a tax credit, to pay banks for the bonds. (The House passed a similar bill last month and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.)

New York City, like many school districts around the country, had delayed issuing any bonds because of this problem, according to the mayor’s preliminary budget plan released in January. In the mayor’s plan, the Office of Management and Budget noted that it expected Congress to revise the school construction bond program and predicted that when it did, the city would successfully be able to issue all $1.4 billion in bonds.

The city needs all of the funds provided by the school construction bonds, plus an additional $300 million from another federal bond program, in order to carry out all of the construction proposed in its five-year capital plan. The bonds fund a total of $1.7 billion of the city’s $11.3 billion capital plan, which was approved last year.

There’s no deadline for the city to issue the $699 million in bonds set aside for New York City in 2009 and the $664 million allocated for 2010, a spokeswoman for the federal Treasury Department said today, so the city’s delay in issuing the bonds won’t hurt its school construction plans.

Comptroller John Liu, who last month urged New York’s Congressional delegation to swap the direct subsidy for the tax credits in the bond program, today called the Senate’s bill “a tremendous victory for our schoolkids.”

Newark Enrolls

Want to attend one of Newark’s coveted magnet schools? Get ready to take a test.

Newark students who hope to attend one of the district's six magnet schools will have to take a new exam in January.

Newark students will soon face a new hurdle when trying to snag seats at the city’s most popular high schools.

Next month, any student who wants into one of the city’s six magnet schools will have to take a new exam that gauges their academic prowess as well as their interest in each school’s theme.

“If you would like to go to any of those schools,” Superintendent Roger León told parents at a conference Wednesday, “you better get ready for the test to get in.”

The exam, which will be given to students on Jan. 11-12, has not yet been announced on the district’s enrollment site. In fact, the test itself is still being developed and logistical details, such as where students will take it, are still being determined, officials said.

In addition to the new test, each school will also begin interviewing applicants, León said — something only two magnet schools did last year, according to an admissions guide. It’s unclear whether the interviews will take place this admission cycle. If so, schools may have to schedule dozens or even hundreds of interviews in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, enrollment for next school year began on Dec. 3 and continues through February — giving students and schools little time to prepare for the new requirements.

“I know as much as you know right now,” one principal said. “Obviously the superintendent is revamping some items, but he hasn’t really shared the details with everyone.”

The district-run magnet schools, which have themes such as science and American history, include some of the city’s most sought-after high schools. Last year, nearly 1,800 eighth-graders listed a magnet school first on their high-school applications even though the schools had space for only 971 students.

The magnets, which vastly outperform the district’s six traditional high schools, already screen applicants. They look at grades, state test scores, attendance records, and — in the case of Arts High School — an audition or visual-art portfolio, when deciding which students to let in.

But even with those screens, some admitted students are not prepared for the rigor of work at the magnets or lack a strong interest in their programs, León said.

“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s not that your parents have the right to choose for you to go.”

Even as he moves to make magnet schools more selective, León — who became superintendent in July — also hopes to make traditional schools more appealing to top students.

On Wednesday, he also announced plans to create gifted-and-talented programs at each of the traditional high schools. To qualify, students will also take the new magnet-school exam.

León did not go into detail about what the programs will entail. But he may be drawing from his previous experience as principal of University High School, a magnet school that advertises a gifted-and-talented program on its website. Students must test into the program, which includes a “rigorous curriculum” in English, math, and another language, according to the site.

“Students are going into magnets because they think that’s where they can get their high-performing education,” he said. “Now they’ll be given a reason to not do that.”

The traditional schools will also develop specialized “academies” to train students for various careers, including engineering, teaching, and health services. Each school will partner with a higher-education institution and a professional organization to develop those programs.

Many Newark schools have tried to offer vocational programs, but often struggle to find qualified teachers and meet the stringent requirements to receive federal funding. It’s unclear how the district will help them overcome those challenges, especially if the timeline is also aggressive.

Traditional schools, for their part, seem eager for any support they can get. Angela Mincy, principal of Barringer High School, said the school created an honors program last year in an effort to retain high-achieving students.

“If I don’t create an isolated experience for them, I will lose them,” she said in an interview last month, adding that the goal is to keep attracting more and more top students. “The hope is that one day, one honors track will become two will become three.”

With their selective admissions and college-oriented courses, the city’s magnet schools have long been seen as a refuge for high-achieving students who cannot afford private school. County-run vocational schools, which also screen applicants, are another popular option along with some charter high schools — though they often have few seats left over for students who did not attend their lower-grade schools.

The district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools are viewed by many families as schools of last resort. On nearly every academic measure — attendance rates, test scores, college enrollment and completion — the traditional schools lag far behind the magnets.

In a sense, this disparity is built into the system. Magnet schools are designed to enroll academically and artistically accomplished students. Traditional schools take the rest, including almost all students who are still learning English and the majority of those with disabilities.

Other cities have begun to rethink this practice of tracking students into separate schools according to ability — at least as measured by a single test. In New York City, where a debate has raged over admissions to the district’s coveted “specialized” high schools, the mayor has proposed scrapping the schools’ entrance exam. Instead, he said, they should reserve spots for the top students from every middle school.

Some Newark parents have floated a similar plan for the city’s most exclusive magnet school, Science Park High School. Instead, Superintendent León is pursuing the opposite approach — adding new entrance exams for all magnet schools. In other cities, exam schools tend to be highly segregated by race and class, favoring families with the wherewithal to help students prepare for the exams or pay for test prep.

León said he expects the new magnet exams will measure students’ reading and math proficiency, as well as their interest in each school’s particular focus, such as science or technology.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” said León, who graduated from Science High School. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

Karen Gaylord, Science Park High School’s community engagement specialist, said some teachers and  parents may grumble about the new test because they haven’t had a chance to prepare students for it. But she noted that families had become “resigned” to entrance exams when magnet schools used them in the past.

She also said many people would welcome the admissions interviews as a way for students to highlight skills and interests that aren’t reflected on their transcripts. The question, she said, is how schools will carry out these changes on such a tight timeline.

“It feels like there are so many opportunities to get this right,” she said. “I’m just not sure we’re going to get them all in this year. The clock is ticking.”

Newark Enrolls

In Newark, universal enrollment was in danger. So charters started planning a separate system.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

For much of this year, the fate of Newark’s joint district-charter enrollment system was uncertain.

So even as charter leaders negotiated changes to the shared system with the district’s new superintendent, they began quietly developing a backup plan in case it fell apart, according to a charter-sector memo obtained by Chalkbeat.

Beginning this spring, the sector began exploring a charter-only enrollment system, the October memo shows. This fall, the sector ramped up its contingency planning: It hired the district’s recently departed enrollment director to draw up plans for a charter-only system.

Ultimately, their efforts proved unnecessary — at least for now. Last month, after prodding from the superintendent, the Newark school board agreed to retain the joint enrollment system for at least another year.

Still, the behind-the-scenes planning shows how seriously some charter leaders took the threat that the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, could unravel. And it illustrates their fear of returning to what many charter proponents consider the bad old days, when each charter school had to convince families to apply to it separately because no universal application form existed.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, an advocacy and school-support group, said the sector was simply doing it “due diligence” in case negotiations with the district over Newark Enrolls broke down. She added that the sector developed a plan for how to create a charter-only enrollment system, but did not actually build one.

“We’re trying very hard to keep one system because we believe that’s in the best interest of kids and families,” Mason said. “But things could change here in Newark, and somebody could change their mind on one system, so we were just committed to not being caught flat-footed.”

The citywide enrollment system, originally called “One Newark,” has been divisive since it launched in 2014. It upended the tradition of families registering in person at their neighborhood school or entering admissions lotteries at individual charter schools. Instead, they could list up to eight district or charter schools on a single application before being matched to one school.

Early on, the new computerized system failed to match some students with any school and sent some siblings to schools in opposite ends of the city. Meanwhile, charter critics saw it as a scheme to divert students from the district into charter schools.

In 2016, the city school board passed a resolution to dismantle the system. But the move was mainly symbolic because the district was still under state control. Then, in February, the state ended its 22-year-long takeover and handed control back to the school board. Suddenly, the future of Newark Enrolls was in doubt.

Around that time, a few board members undertook a review of the enrollment system, which included talking to charter leaders. The charter leaders were left with the impression that some board members wanted separate district and charter enrollment systems, according to the charter memo.

At that point, sector began developing “contingency plans” for a charter-only system, the memo says. The idea was that if families could not longer apply to district and charter schools through a single system, they at least would not have to apply to each charter school separately.

Charter leaders’ fears grew in late June when the district’s new board-selected superintendent, Roger León, forced out dozens of administrators and top officials — including two who oversaw enrollment, Kate Fletcher and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. The board blocked their firing but both eventually resigned, leaving the enrollment office without a leader.

Around the time of León’s leadership shakeup, the Newark Charter School Fund hired a “research group” to study the computer program the district uses to match students with schools “so it can be replicated if needed,” according to the memo, which did not name the group.

Then tensions appeared to ease. In July, León assured charter leaders that he would protect the joint enrollment system. The two sides began negotiating the terms of an annual agreement that spells out how the system should operate.

Worried about the lack of leadership in the enrollment office and potential staff reductions, charter leaders pushed for a provision in the agreement that says the district must maintain “the quality and quantity of personnel necessary” to operate Newark Enrolls. The district accepted that change then proposed its own — an end to the practice of sending charter schools extra students to offset those who leave over the summer — which became a major sticking point. (The final agreement does not explicitly ban or allow the practice.)

Amid those talks, the charter sector hired Fletcher, the former district enrollment official, to develop a plan for “operationalizing” a charter-only enrollment system, according to the memo. That included contacting possible vendors and staffers to run the system, the memo says. (Fletcher did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Eventually, district and charter leaders settled on the language of the agreement. At a board meeting on Nov. 12, Superintendent León made a forceful case for keeping the joint enrollment system, saying it eased the application process for parents and gave them more options. The board voted to approve it.

However, the vote was more a temporary truce than a permanent end to the battle over Newark Enrolls.

Board Member Leah Owens, who abstained from the vote, said during the meeting that the system was costly for the district to maintain and amounted to a district endorsement of charter schools. Board Member Reginald Bledsoe said he was only voting for the agreement because the district had not yet created an alternative enrollment system.

“We talked at great length with the community that we wouldn’t be moving forward with this system,” Bledsoe told the superintendent during the meeting. “When will this plan come to a halt?”