Newark is a midsize city with a supersize assortment of schools. Now, for the first time, families can find information about the city’s roughly 185 school options all in one place.
A new website called My Schools Newark provides a searchable database of all the city’s traditional, charter, magnet, vocational, and private schools and preschools, along with basic information about each school and how to apply. The developers say the new search tool features about 80 more schools than a similar website run by the Newark school district.
Both websites allow families to research schools. The major difference is that Newark Public Schools’ tool only includes district-operated schools and charter schools that participate in Newark Enrolls, the district-run enrollment system. The new site includes those schools along with additional charter schools, private schools, parochial schools, private pre-kindergarten providers, and vocational-technical high schools operated by Essex County.
The number of Newark schools has skyrocketed over the past two decades due to the rapid proliferation of charter schools, which are publicly funded and independently operated, as well as the district’s recent push to open new schools.
But unless all families are informed about their options and how to apply, then the rise in school choice could end up favoring parents with the wherewithal to research schools and navigate their sometimes complicated admissions rules, said Ashley Jochim, a principal researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
“One of the largest obstacles to choice is something that people don’t even really think about,” she said, which is many parents’ limited “awareness of your ability to choose and what options are available.”
The new website aims to inform families of all their options. It was created by the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a well-funded nonprofit based in Newark, which supports school choice and says it wants to promote a “fact-based” discussion about the city’s schools.
Charter school leaders and advocates have clashed with the district in recent years over changes to the enrollment system. In 2018, when it was unclear whether the district’s new leadership would keep the system, charter advocates even began drawing up plans for one of their own.
Kyle Rosenkrans, the foundation’s executive director, said his group is not interested in creating a new enrollment system. However, the group did see a need for a search tool, operated by a third party instead of the district, to help families make informed decisions when choosing among Newark’s many schools.
“What we lacked in the city was a single website that could help you find all of the school options in the city and then provide an easy pass-through to whatever application system that school might use,” he said. He called the website a “one-stop shop” and compared it to Zillow, the real estate website, but said it would help people search for local schools instead of homes.
To develop the website, the foundation hired a research firm to survey Newark voters and hold focus groups with parents to better understand how families choose schools. The foundation then paid Avela, a software developer that has designed enrollment tools for New York City and other school districts, to build the website.
The site allows families to search for schools in their area and filter the results by grade level, type (such as district or charter), and the special education or language services provided. It features a profile of each school with information such as enrollment size, extracurricular activities, and how students performed on standardized tests. It also explains how to apply to each school, though families cannot submit applications through the website.
A district spokesperson did not respond to a request to comment on the new website. But Sarah Yan, the foundation’s executive director-in-residence, said her team met with district staffers during the development process and asked for their feedback.
“The district was a huge part of our stakeholder engagement,” she said, adding that the website steers visitors to the district’s enrollment system if they want to apply to a participating school.
In addition to its own website, Newark Public Schools also publishes an enrollment guidebook, shows promotional videos, and hosts a citywide school fair. The New Jersey Children’s Foundation hosted a virtual event in February that let parents video chat with representatives from about 20 schools using the My Schools Newark website. It plans to organize additional events in the future, which the foundation says will complement the district’s fair.
While such efforts are important, simply making information available to families isn’t enough, said Jochim, the education researcher. Online tools, workshops, and fairs that provide information about schools are “passive methods with limited reach” because parents must seek them out, she wrote in a 2019 report with co-authors Georgia Heyward and Betheny Gross.
A more proactive approach is to reach out to families and provide direct support throughout the enrollment process, she said. In several cities, such as Boston, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., where families have many schools to choose from, local organizations train “navigators” to help parents understand the enrollment process, interpret school data, choose schools, and submit applications.
“What you want to be doing is looking at every sort of step in the process and ensuring families have the support they need to overcome any barriers,” Jochim said.
No organization in Newark provides that level of support. Instead, families must visit their nearest school, call or email the district, or contact a community group to ask for enrollment help. The New Jersey Children’s Foundation hired one person to assist families as they use the new website, but Rosenkrans said he would consider bringing on more support staff if needed.
Newark parent Dane Tomlin said he was desperate for guidance when choosing schools for his oldest child many years ago. Back then, Newark did not have an online enrollment system, so Tomlin learned about schools by word of mouth and advertisements he saw on buses.
“You as a parent, you’re supposed to be that guiding light,” Tomlin said. “But I absolutely had no clue what I was doing.”
Today, he is an advocate for charter schools, which his two younger children attend, and gave feedback during the development of the My Schools Newark website. He can only imagine if it had been available when he was choosing schools.
“If I had this tool back then,” he said, “it would have just been easier for me to make the right decision.”
Patrick Wall is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city and across New Jersey. Contact Patrick at [email protected].