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Newark families will soon be able to enroll at schools on phones, get enrollment help in their neighborhoods

Newark wants to make it much easier for families to enroll their children in new schools.

The district plans to revamp the city’s online enrollment system so it is simpler to use, officials said Tuesday. The new system will enable families to enroll at schools on their mobile phones, rather than by filling out paper forms.

The district also plans to close a downtown “family support center” that parents can visit when they need help switching schools. Instead, enrollment personnel will be stationed in schools across the city so families can get assistance in their own neighborhoods, officials said.

“This process will save families valuable time and enhance the parent registration experience,” said Havier Nazario, the superintendent’s chief of staff, during a school board meeting Tuesday.

The district will pay San Francisco-based SchoolMint up to $162,754 to rebuild the enrollment system, which allows families to apply online to almost any public school in the city — traditional, magnet, or participating charter schools. The Camden, Denver, and Los Angeles school districts use enrollment tools created by SchoolMint, as do many charter schools.

The district has previously paid a different company, Salesforce, $150,000 per year to manage the enrollment system, according to district documents.

Superintendent Roger León’s administration decided to invest in a new system in order to make the enrollment process easier for families, give them more options, and ensure siblings can attend the same schools, Nazario told the board. He added that the chosen vendors will be able to meet more than 90 percent of the requirements that the district listed in a request for proposals last month.

“We have heard your concerns” about the current system, Nazario said. Board members did not publicly ask any questions about the contract Tuesday, such as how the vendors were chosen or the costs were determined.

The planned overhaul is just the latest change to the online enrollment system, known as “Newark Enrolls,” which was launched in 2014. Before then, families had to enroll in person at neighborhood schools or fill out separate applications for each charter school.

The online system was meant to make it easier for families to apply to a wider range of schools. Yet it proved deeply controversial. Originally called “One Newark,” the system was rolled out at the same time that several neighborhood schools were closed or restructured. And the online system had major flaws, leaving some students without placements and sending some siblings to separate schools.

The district improved the system over time, so that most families now receive one of their top-choice schools. The support center was also established so district employees could find schools for students who were unhappy with their placements or arrived after the enrollment period. In 2017, the district set up an online tool families can use to change schools, which officials said greatly reduced the number of visits to the support center.

Yet some families don’t have easy access to a computer or struggle to find a school without help from a district employee. For them, traveling to the support center at 765 Broad Street in the district’s headquarters is an “extreme hassle,” said Yolanda Johnson, a Newark activist and founder of the group, Parents Educating Parents.

Johnson said parents have expressed frustration to her about having to take public transportation to get downtown or paying to park there. Allowing parents to make enrollment changes at their nearest school will be much more convenient, she said.

“That’s what real choice is about,” said Johnson. “They can walk to their local neighborhood school and enroll.”

Nazario did not say when the support center will close, and a district spokeswoman did not respond to emailed questions. 

But an employee at the center said by phone Wednesday that they hope to relocate the staffers to local schools by the start of next school year. In the meantime, families can continue to visit or call the support center, the employee said.

“We are still here servicing families until that transition happens,” she said.

Correction: June 29, 2019: An earlier version of this story said two companies had been awarded contracts to rebuild the enrollment system; only SchoolMint was awarded a contract. The story also cited an incorrect figure for the amount of SchoolMint’s contract. The incorrect information was based on a document distributed at Tuesday’s school board meeting. A district official contacted Chalkbeat on Friday to provide the correct information and said the document will be updated when it is posted on the board’s website.