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Newark Public Schools looks to build new enrollment system

Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

Now in its sixth year, Newark’s controversial student-enrollment system is about to get a makeover.

The Newark school board is seeking a vendor to redesign the citywide enrollment system, which uses a computer program to match students to schools, according to a notice posted last week. Interested vendors have until June 6 to submit proposals.

This year, about 12,000 families used the current system, called Newark Enrolls, to apply to traditional and participating charter schools for the fall.

The request for proposals for the “design, development, and support” of a new system does not include a cost estimate. The district spends $150,000 per year on the current system, which was developed by the San Francisco-based software company, Salesforce, according to a district document.

The move signals that the district’s new leadership intends to revamp rather than abolish the system, as some critics have demanded. The notice gives no indication of major changes, but says the redesigned system should feature the latest technology, be user friendly, and work on phones and mobile devices.

The “system we are currently utilizing is outdated” and “is not suited for the needs of the district,” said board member Reginald Bledsoe. He added that families will still be able to apply to traditional and charter schools through the new system.

Since launching in 2014, Newark’s enrollment system has been mired in controversy. Early glitches left some families without school matches and assigned some siblings to far-apart schools. And because the system allowed families to select traditional and charter schools anywhere in the city, critics saw it as a ploy to undermine neighborhood schools and boost charters.

The district has improved the system over time; last year, 95 percent of families who completed a survey after using Newark Enrolls reported satisfaction with it. But it has remained politically contentious: The school board voted to dismantle it in 2016, though it lacked the authority to do so because the state controlled the district at the time.

Last year, the board regained control of the schools and chose a homegrown superintendent, Roger León. The board agreed to retain the system for this school year at the urging of León, who said it makes the enrollment process fairer and easier for families.

But it has still caused him headaches. Some charter school leaders have discussed pulling out of Newark Enrolls after they received fewer students this year than they requested. And, after receiving their school matches several days later than expected, some families have complained about the results.

“There are people who have said, ‘Hey, I got a match letter to a school I never picked,’” León said at Tuesday’s board meeting, where he explained that students who do not get one of their top choices are automatically assigned to their nearest traditional school. “There’s a level of clarification that needs to be repeated.”

The board did not discuss on Tuesday the district’s plan to pay for a new enrollment system. A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions Wednesday about what prompted the planned redesign or how much it is expected to cost.

The notice to vendors includes detailed technical requirements for the new system, such as a function to prevent siblings from being split up. The specifications also suggest that magnet schools may start to rank applicants based on their essays and letters of recommendation, in addition to test scores and attendance records, which they already consider.

Vendors must submit cost proposals along with their bids. Finalists will present their plans and answer questions in mid-June, before the board awards a one-year contract to the winning applicant.

“We’ll see how it works out,” said board member Tave Padilla.

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