One week ago, Mayor Baraka announced the opening of five additional ‘Enrollment Assistance Sites’ in each ward of Newark to help parents register their children for school. With Newark Public Schools (NPS) committing at least one person from the district’s staff to supplement volunteers at the new sites, this development appears to be a positive and collaborative step forward.
In addition to the district’s Family Support Center currently in place, these new centers will provide parents with information and resources necessary to make the best school decisions for their families. This includes ensuring that children who need access to English Language Learner programs and special education services are receiving appropriate assistance. While the primary focus of the additional centers is to help families enroll their children in school, volunteers will also be taking note of any problems or complaints parents have and will work to resolve the issues in partnership with NPS.
This type of support for parents and families is consistent with what we’ve seen around common enrollment implementation in New Orleans and Denver. According to a recent report, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) noted that one of the main reasons these cities were successful with common enrollment was because leaders used both ‘formal and informal means’ to talk to parents, community leaders, and other stakeholders, which in turn fostered ‘inter-organizational trust.’ This trust that New Orleans and Denver fostered was one of the key reasons ambitious changes to the enrollment process came to fruition. While Newark is of course very different from New Orleans and Denver, it is worth looking at these cities to see what should be replicated. In the case of Newark, the Mayor and the new Superintendent appear to be taking the necessary steps to actively engage the people who are most immediately impacted, which is the most important piece in getting kids placed in the right schools.
This March 2014 CRPE report offered several other useful strategies for engaging communities that Newark could potentially tap into. For example, in both cities, third-party community groups were utilized to engage parents by playing an active role in information gathering/dissemination and also in collecting feedback on current policies. Some of this has already happened in Newark, but with new collaboration this could be the perfect time for the Mayor and Superintendent to reach out to a greater number of community groups to play this role.
Another engagement strategy outlined in the CRPE study was the use of steering committees. The committees in Denver and New Orleans were made up of community representatives across the education network of the individual cities and included education advocates and public school leaders. The committees participated in reoccurring conference calls, met in-person on a regular basis and were active in the decision-making process, specifically around the design and implementation of the common enrollment system. The committees offered a formal platform for stakeholders to voice their concerns and recommend their ideas, and many times their suggestions were incorporated into the design and rollout of the common enrollment plan. Steering committees could be a beneficial engagement tool in Newark and could provide a constructive outlet for stakeholders to express ideas and concerns, by establishing, as the report notes, a place for ‘genuine engagement.’
There is no doubt that the future of Newark’s education landscape will certainly need to be built on a foundation of trust, collaboration, and engagement. And while it is early, we are beginning to see signs of that taking place. We see it in Superintendent Cerf’s offer to the Newark School Advisory Board to set up in district headquarters and this recent announcement from the Mayor about new enrollment centers staffed with volunteers and district staff. All of this will take time, but we need to acknowledge these early efforts and continue to build from here.
This article first appeared in My Child, My Choice Newark.