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When Newark students want to move from charter to district schools, data does not always follow

Science Park is one of Newark's selective magnet schools. The schools have sometimes had trouble getting transcripts and other documents from charter schools when their students apply to magnet schools.
Science Park is one of Newark's selective magnet schools. The schools have sometimes had trouble getting transcripts and other documents from charter schools when their students apply to magnet schools.
Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

As students race to apply to some of Newark’s top high schools before Friday’s deadline, one group of applicants may be at a disadvantage — charter school students.

In past years, the district’s selective “magnet” high schools have occasionally had trouble obtaining transcripts and test scores for students in certain charter schools, according to current and former district and charter employees. In one instance, a family had so much difficulty getting the necessary records from their charter school that they appealed to the Newark Board of Education for help, leading a board member to personally intervene.

A former Newark Public Schools official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said most charter schools eventually provide any information that families leave off their applications, such as grades or test scores. However, one large charter school network — KIPP New Jersey — was “very slow to respond” to requests for information and seemed to be “dragging their feet,” the official said.

Some critics suspect that charter networks like KIPP, which have their own high schools, may want to avoid losing top students to other schools. But it’s also possible that large networks like KIPP, which operates eight schools in Newark, cannot always keep up with the data requests it receives.

Whether intentionally or not, charter schools can impede their students’ path into the city’s competitive magnet schools if they fail to provide the necessary documents.

Charter schools “are not being held responsible for doing what they’re supposed to,” said Juwana Montgomery, a former KIPP employee whose twin sons attend Science Park, a district magnet school. She said she believes some of the document delays are intentional: “If they let all the best and brightest students leave their network, that lowers their numbers.”

KIPP New Jersey CEO Ryan Hill said he had not heard any complaints about delays in submitting information for KIPP students who apply to high schools outside the network, but said he would look into it. He disputed the claim that the network tried to prevent students from leaving in order to fill its own high school, Newark Collegiate Academy, which he said more than 80 percent of KIPP eighth-graders choose to attend.

“The notion that we’re trying to block their options or anything like that is completely antithetical to who we are,” Hill said. “We believe they should pick the schools that are best for them.”

However, he added, KIPP believes that “for most of our kids, our high school is the best option.”

All but one of the district’s six magnet schools decide which students to admit based on their grades, attendance records, and state test scores. (Arts High School bases its decisions on an audition or review of student artwork.) This year, the schools will also consider the results of a new admissions test that students will take this week.

Families of children in district schools do not have to worry about submitting grades and scores when they apply to magnet schools — that information is already in the district’s database. But families coming from charter schools must input the data themselves on the district’s enrollment website and upload verifying documents, such as transcripts and test score summaries. Families that do not have access to those documents must request them from the charter schools or ask the schools to complete that part of the application for them.

When families submit incomplete applications, the district tries to track down the missing data. “We followed up extensively with both families and students’ schools to ensure we received as complete and accurate information as possible,” a district enrollment official wrote in a memo to the school board last year. Magnet schools are asked to reconsider students with incomplete applications if their information is later submitted, according to the memo.

The magnet schools themselves may also request missing information. However, employees at three magnet schools said it can be difficult to get some charter schools to submit the necessary documents, which the employees attributed to the schools wanting to hold onto their students.

“They’re not eager to release them,” said Edith Battles, a school clerk at Arts High School. “Who wants to let go of a good student?”

Many Newark charter schools do not go beyond eighth grade, leaving them no reason not to help their students apply to district high schools. However, several charter networks include high schools with seats to fill, giving them an incentive to retain those students.

Last year, KIPP’s Team Academy middle school held an information session for eighth-grade families to sell them on KIPP’s high school, according to Montgomery, the school’s former operations manager. At the meeting, staffers compared the outcomes of KIPP high school graduates with those of a low-performing district high school, Montgomery said. (In Newark, KIPP high school graduates are more likely than their traditional school counterparts to earn college degrees, but less likely than magnet school graduates to do so, according to a recent study.)

Hill, the KIPP New Jersey CEO, said the network simply provides factual information to families about its high school — the same way as other district and charter schools that try to recruit students. He added that KIPP staffers also write recommendation letters for students who choose to apply to private schools.

Tommy Luna, an eighth-grade math teacher at KIPP’s Rise Academy middle school, said his school gives students time to research different high schools. Students are encouraged to look at the schools’ graduation rates, Advanced Placement classes, and extracurricular activities. Most students end up choosing KIPP’s high school, Luna said, but others opt for private, county-run, or magnet schools.

“We’re going to support our kids whatever they choose,” he said.

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