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Newark Schools Try to Help Parents With New Open-Enrollment Process

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The Newark public school system is taking steps to avoid the parent protests and complaints about its previous all-choice system of enrolling children in traditional and charter schools, changing its application process and attempting to make it easier.

An open enrollment fair on Jan. 30 drew more than 1,000 people, even during a week of stormy weather.

"We were really happy with the turnout," said Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, the district's executive director of student enrollment.

Newark schools faced criticism over the past two years by parents after the district switched to the controversial One Newark plan, allowing families to apply for both regular and charter public schools through a new application process.

Frank Adao, the parent founder of the Parent Power Movement, a group that has fought the One Newark plan, said the district's new procedures are simpler for parents. But he's unsure if the new process will end up assigning students closer to home, with their siblings, and in programs that they desire, as the group has advocated. Placements will be made later this spring.

"It doesn't make it great for parents," Adao said. "We still don't know where [students are] going to go in the fall." 

The district drew nationwide attention in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to the school system on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which was the subject of a book, The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools, by Dale Russakoff.

But the plan ran into trouble with some parents complaining that they didn't know where their children were going to school a few weeks before classes started or their children were placed far away from their homes and siblings. A new superintendent, Christopher Cerf, was appointed to take over the district last summer.

Under new leadership, the district has extended the open-enrollment period to 12 weeks, made "geographic preferences" so that children can attend school close to their neighborhoods, and set priorities for children to stay with their siblings whenever possible. Officials even changed the One Newark name, instead calling it Newark Enrollsa bit "pithier," Ramos-Solomon said.

As part of its attempts to better reach parents, the district held the open enrollment fair at a high school, luring families with free pizza, face painting, and a school-spirit video contest.

Two years ago, the district held a similar, but less festive, open enrollment fair, but opted for smaller, community events last year that were "not as well attended," Ramos-Solomon said.

As of Feb. 4, about 8,000 families had submitted open-enrollment applications. About 50,000 students are in the district's traditional and charter schools in pre-K through 12th grades.

"The anecdotal pieces of evidence suggest that finding this experience is pretty positive, and they find the application pretty easy to navigate," Ramos-Solomon said.

The application deadline is Feb. 29. 

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected].

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