study says...

Report illustrates disparities in over-the-counter enrollment

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Percentages of over the counter students at schools that began phasing out in 2011

Students who enter city high schools outside of the regular admissions process are disproportionately sent to struggling schools, according to a new analysis of Department of Education data—something advocates for those schools have long asserted.

The statistics also illustrate how differently seats are filled in high schools across the city. At the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology in 2011, only 7 percent of students were enrolled “over the counter,” meaning they were assigned some time after the traditional high school choice process. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology, which the city has tried to close, 26 percent of students were enrolled over the counter that year.

Christopher Columbus High School, which is closing at the end of this year, had some of the highest rates in the city. Over-the-counter enrollments made up 39 percent of the school’s total in 2008, and the pace continued as the school began phasing out, with 37 percent over-the-counter enrollment in 2011.

“That is the reason we’re closing, absolutely,” Columbus principal Lisa Fuentes said. “It’s extremely challenging students—not that they’re bad students, they just have so many different challenges. Behavioral challenges, extreme academic challenges. We just couldn’t handle it.”

When potential high school students arrive in the city after the choice process is over, they head to an enrollment office where they are assigned to a school. The report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform used Department of Education statistics that showed how many of those students were assigned to individual high schools between 2008 and 2011.

According to the Department of Education, those officials look to academic interests, programs available, and parent preferences when placing students. But the process is largely about what schools have space and available seats, and reflects the enrollment policies assigned to each school—which means small schools with capped enrollment, screened schools with admissions requirements, and very popular schools enroll few latecomers.

The report also shows a correlation between low test scores of the students who enter a school during the traditional enrollment process and high over-the-counter enrollment, especially in large high schools, as well as high over-the-counter enrollment numbers at many schools slated for closure.

“That system means some high schools become warehouses for students who have special needs or are ELLs,” said Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who was worked with Columbus High School and other closing schools. “If you look at any schools that are closed or are in midst of closing, you’ll find OTC enrollment throughout the year is probably one of the top reasons. I have yet to see any type of authentic acknowledgment of that.”

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The number of over the counter students at large high schools compared to the English scores of their other incoming students

State Education Commissioner John King has consistently voiced concerns that the city has concentrated high-needs students in some schools without providing them with adequate support, including at the beginning of this school year. In 2011, the city began sending over-the-counter students to schools that wouldn’t otherwise have taken in any students midyear, though city officials said that was not related to King’s concerns.

Department of Education officials said they do not steer students to low-performing schools.

“We are a system of 1.1 million students across 1,819 schools, and schools most in demand during our high school admissions process tend to have the fewest seats available for students who enroll on the first day or midyear,” spokesman Devon Puglia said. “We make seats at high performing schools available for these students and make every effort to place them in the best schools possible.”

“Over the last decade, we’ve created new school options specifically for this student population – be it through International schools, transfer schools, dual language programs, and programs developed to effectively serve high-need students. Further, last year, every single non-specialized high school enrolled students over-the-counter. The report ignores the fact that many parents exercise choice in the over the counter process and opt for their zoned or local school,” Puglia said.

The report acknowledges that there isn’t a clear-cut profile of over-the-counter students, which include students who move to the city from other districts and aren’t all high-needs. But that population includes students who have moved to New York City from other countries and students who didn’t participate in the high school choice process because of incarceration or instability from homelessness.

Not all of the schools with the highest over-the-counter enrollment are large zoned or unscreened schools—many are designed for students learning English or were new, small schools in their first years. But any school taking in high numbers of over-the-counter students faces challenges providing necessary services for students they didn’t plan for, as well as the day-to-day instability that comes from fluctuating enrollment numbers.

Neil Dorosin, who designed New York City’s high school choice process and oversaw high school enrollment between 2004 and 2007said that deciding how to assign students who enter the system after the traditional process is a universal problem for districts with choice-based systems.

When some schools are popular enough to fill all of their seats during the choice process, assigning all of those seats is unpopular with some and saving some of them for students who haven’t even moved to New York yet is unpopular with others, he added.

“Cities have to make the following decision: Am I going to do something to intervene so that my most popular schools have some room left for kids who are hypothetical, or am I going to do nothing and let my most popular schools fill and let those who are hypothetical choose from whatever’s left?” Dorosin said. “There’s no easy win here. You can’t make everybody happy.”

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the report validated the union’s longstanding argument that the city set certain schools up to fail before phasing them out. “Now we have definite proof, and I think we should call for an investigation,” he said.

For schools receiving high numbers of over-the-counter students, questions remain about how to serve them best. At the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, a meeting is scheduled for the end of October for parents to explain the issue.

“As an un-screened choice high school A.S. E., is mandated to take all new comers,” the announcement says. “Yet how will this consistently improving school continue to successfully educate this population while facing various challenges; the inability to cap enrollment, overcrowded classrooms, brand new Common Core requirements, budget cuts and other limitations beyond the schools control?”

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The change, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.’”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”