On the second day of the school year, Malika Berry got an alarming call from her son, a 10th-grader at Marion P. Thomas Charter School.
“Ma, they told me I don’t go here anymore,” Berry recalled her son saying.
After she rushed to the school on Aug. 28, a staffer informed Berry that her son, Sahir Minatee, had been dropped from the roster over the summer. The school said Berry had failed to provide a document proving the family still lived at the same address down the street from the Central Ward school, which her son had attended since ninth grade. (Berry says she sent the school a bank statement with her address in May or June, and offered another one in August, which the school refused to accept.)
“He was basically kicked out,” Berry said.
Sahir wasn’t alone. Marion P. Thomas, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade network of schools, removed 30 students from its roster over the summer for failing to submit proof of their address, school officials said.
The purge came over two months before Sept. 28 — the deadline Newark Public Schools gave families in charter and district schools to submit residency forms. It appeared to violate state regulations, which require districts to notify families and hold public hearings before removing enrolled children.
“The school can’t just throw a kid out,” said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney at the Newark-based Education Law Center, adding that state regulations typically apply to all public schools — district and charter alike.
Marion P. Thomas officials, who originally sent Sahir to the district enrollment office, which reassigned him to a district high school, now say they erred in forcing out families who failed to provide the residency paperwork. But more than two weeks into the school year, only five of the 30 students have re-enrolled at the charter school, according to the school’s chief administrator, Misha Simmonds.
“We should not have disenrolled them,” Simmonds said Wednesday. “And that’s why we’re accepting them back.”
The purge adds to the recent controversy surrounding the 19-year-old charter school, which turned away dozens of high-school students on the first day of class for minor uniform infractions. Videos of the students hanging out in a nearby park after being blocked from school quickly went viral, prompting an online backlash and an apology from the school.
Last week, the Education Law Center filed a complaint with the state education department asking it to investigate the uniform crackdown, which it said led to “blatantly illegal exclusions of students from school.” It also asked the department to investigate Berry’s claim that the school disenrolled her son in retaliation for his speaking out about the uniform incident, not because of missing paperwork. (The school denies that claim.)
Marion P. Thomas, like all New Jersey charter schools, gets its funding from the districts where its students live. (Most of the school’s students live in Newark, but a small number live in surrounding districts such as East Orange and Irvington.) The districts, including Newark Public Schools, require charters to prove their students are district residents before they hand over the per-pupil allowance for charter students.
New enrollees at any Newark district or charter school must submit three residency documents — which can include copies of utility bills, bank statements, or a driver’s license — while current students must provide one each year showing their address hasn’t changed. The deadline is Sept. 28.
Marion P. Thomas began sending home letters in February reminding families of this requirement, according to Simmonds. In May, it hired extra workers to call families. The school originally set a June deadline to turn in the documents, but extended it to July.
In mid-July — two months before the district’s deadline — the school disenrolled any students who had not yet provided residency documents, Simmonds said, adding that the charter informed the district of its purge. (A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request to confirm that.)
Simmonds said families received letters notifying them that they would be removed from the rolls if they failed to verify their addresses by the deadline. But he was not sure whether they were notified again after they missed the deadline and before they were removed.
According to state regulations, districts must provide notice in writing to families if their child is deemed ineligible to attend school in that district because of where they live or because of missing paperwork. Families can appeal that decision, and students have a right to remain enrolled in their school during the appeals process. The district’s board of education must then hold a hearing before removing any student.
In New Jersey, the state education department is the sole authorizer responsible for overseeing charter schools. Michael Yaple, a department spokesman, said “it wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to comment on a specific school, but noted that “there is a process for un-enrolling students that is set forth in the state regulations.”
In recent years, Marion P. Thomas and other Newark charter schools have faced growing pressure to prove their students live in the city — and are thus entitled to Newark’s education dollars.
In 2016, Newark Public Schools conducted an enrollment audit of all the city’s district and charter schools. The goal, as former Superintendent Christopher Cerf wrote in a letter to families that year, was to “ensure that the funding designated for Newark’s public schools is serving Newark residents.”
All students, whether current or new, had to submit three proofs of address that year. Some 1,300 charter students who could not prove Newark residency were told to “find another district to fund their seat at the charter or register in their home district,” according to minutes from a Dec. 2016 school board meeting.
After the audit, the district had to pay for 1,295 fewer charter students than it had originally projected, according to the board minutes. Cerf later said the audit saved the district $2 million.
Since then, Newark Public Schools, like other districts, has required families to re-submit residency documents each year. Simmonds, of Marion P. Thomas, said the requirement leaves charter schools “in a pickle” if families fail to provide the paperwork.
“If districts don’t get that, they don’t pay,” he said. “Every charter has had experiences with districts that have not paid.”
Gabriella DiFilippo, chief operating officer of KIPP New Jersey, which operates eight Newark charter schools, agreed that it can be an “enormous amount of work” to ensure families submit residency documents. For instance, families who share apartments may not have utility bills registered in their names. (The state regulations include special provisions for homeless and immigrant students.)
For that reason, she added, the network goes out of its way to help families round up the necessary paperwork.
“We would never tell a student that they couldn’t come to our school because they didn’t get their residency verification in,” she said.