Next year, Newark students will have three new schools to choose from, including an elementary school named for Michelle Obama and high schools dedicated to fashion and data science.
The planned schools continue the district’s aggressive push to expand, which involved opening two new schools this fall and moving another into a fully renovated campus. The new schools, along with revamped vocational programs in each comprehensive high school, are meant to give students more options and entice some families who opted for charter or private schools to give the district another look. Because state funding is tied to enrollment, if the district can attract more students, it will also receive more money.
“What we have to do in Newark schools is say, ‘You know what, we have to increase enrollment so that we’re addressing the needs of our students,’” Superintendent Roger León told the school board earlier this year.
The Michelle Obama Elementary School will be located in the city’s Central Ward and will focus on community, leadership, and wellness, according to a district press release. The School of Fashion and Design will offer courses in fashion drawing, history, and computer arts. And the Newark School of Data Science and Information Technology will prepare students to become researchers and IT professionals, the district said.
The fashion and data science schools will each start with ninth grade and add a grade each year. They will be located in the North and West Wards, though the district did not specify which school will go where.
“The Newark Board of Education continues to strive in establishing and providing new and exciting opportunities for our students to succeed,” the release said.
The new schools are just one prong of the district’s planned expansion. León said he wants to create new elementary schools in each ward that feed students into the magnet high schools. He has also hinted at a plan to reclaim buildings the district offloaded years ago to cut costs, and said the district will take back building space it currently rents to a charter school.
Many Newark residents are encouraged by León’s talk of growing the district, which would reverse years of contraction when Newark schools were under state control. Recent state-appointed superintendents downsized the district by closing traditional schools, selling off empty buildings, and leasing space to charter schools.
By some measures, the district’s growth plan appears to be working.
Districtwide enrollment grew by just over 960 students from 2017-18 to 2019-20, according to data published by the state, which has not released enrollment numbers for this school year. And the schools that launched this fall — Sir Isaac Newton Elementary School, Newark School of Global Studies, and the renovated Newark Vocational High School — have generated enthusiasm and hundreds of applications for seats, officials said.
Yet the district’s steady expansion also raises some questions.
With the pandemic creating new costs while shrinking state education aid, the district faces a budget crunch at the same time that it’s establishing new schools. This school year, the district had to slash spending on supplies and services by $20 million to balance the budget even as it set aside $3 million for the two new schools. The district has not said how much the three schools set to open next fall will cost.
It’s also an open question whether the district will attract additional students to fill the new schools, or simply shuffle current students around. Nine of 13 high schools enrolled fewer students last school year than the previous one, according to district data. Unless the three new high schools draw students from outside the district, they could cause the existing high schools to lose even more students — and, potentially, resources.
“Is the enrollment growing enough to meet the needs of these schools? I have not seen any data that speaks to it,” said a person familiar with the district’s expansion plans who asked to remain anonymous to avoid straining ties with officials. “It’s a gamble, but the superintendent has obviously decided that it’s a gamble that he’s willing to take.”
Then there is the question of whether the district is doing enough to improve its existing high schools.
The district recently established new or redesigned vocational programs in all of its comprehensive high schools and connected them with higher-ed and industry partners. Yet several of the schools continue to struggle with attendance and academics. At three of them, more than 40% of students were chronically absent last school year and only 3% of students met state standards in math the previous year, according to district data.
At a recent meeting, school board members raised the issue of equity between the new and old schools. One member asked if the new schools would provide programs for students with special needs, and another asked if existing schools would get building upgrades.
“I’m so proud and glad that we are opening new schools,” said board member Hasani Council. “But us as a district and us as a board, we have to look at our previous schools that we already have and start looking at ways in which we can start to renovate those schools.”
León noted that the district revamped the schools’ vocational programs, and said building repairs would continue. (A district spokeswoman declined Friday to make León available for an interview.)
For now, many families are grateful for the new schools that opened this fall. They include a science-themed elementary school, a high school teaching Chinese and Arabic, and Newark Vocational High School, which will offer training in culinary arts, hospitality and tourism, and graphic design.
Officials unveiled Newark Vocational’s refurbished campus last week, ending the school’s yearlong wait for a permanent home. The brand-new facilities include a reception area resembling a hotel lobby, a commercial kitchen, and two restaurant-style dining areas.
The school “will be a light, a beacon to the students and families in Newark,” Principal Kyle Brown said at the ribbon-cutting event. “Our students deserve it and the city of Newark deserves this.”