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Today the New Jersey Children’s Foundation (NJCF) announced the launch of My Schools Newark, a free online research tool and mobile-friendly website that provides parents with a centralized resource for important information on every one of Newark’s 130+ K-12 schools. As the platform matures, parent and community feedback will be incorporated, with the intent to help families navigate all the educational options available for their children.
“As Newark’s population rises and the school system continues to grow, parents deserve access to better information regarding Newark’s many school options, while also demanding stronger service and assistance,” said Kyle Rosenkrans, Executive Director of NJCF. “My Schools Newark was uniquely developed to serve the specific needs of Newark families and centralizes all school-based data and information to help those families navigate the city’s full menu of private, parochial, charter, and district school options.”
Enrolling in Newark’s different schools–-traditional district schools, district magnet and specialized schools, public charter schools, special education schools, private and parochial schools—has been a fraught experience for parents. While the district has a “universal” enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, last year Superintendent Roger León, who continues to prioritize district market share over parents’ right to choose the school best suited for their children, unilaterally decided to change the rules: families enrolling in district schools could just check off the appropriate box but families applying to charters had to submit drivers licenses, utility bills, or leases prior to applying. The district also sent attendance officers to the homes of Newark families applying to charters, primarily Spanish-speaking parents, according to reports from Chalkbeat; Rosenkrans called the home visits “strong-armed, invasive tactics towards parents.” (The district rescinded the rule last Spring after multiple complaints.)
Now parents have apolitical, objective ways to measure the quality and suitability of schools for each of their children: My Schools Newark.
The platform was designed and developed by former Great Oaks Legacy student enrollment coordinator Octavia Thompson. In her previous position she was the lead point of contact for families struggling with the district enrollment system and, thus, knows what families need. Thompson, who will continue to lead the platform’s evolution to best serve Newark families said,
During this challenging moment in education, it is more important than ever to help families learn about the many great school options in Newark. Our focus at My Schools Newark has been to listen and learn first and create a resource that is indeed needed and valued by parents. Our surveys, focus groups, and interaction with schools and parents over the last several months point to a clear and resounding “YES!” – that parents want more resources and find this type of tool useful. Most important, we see even greater potential to continue evolving this needed platform to ensure greater transparency and information sharing in the future.
Butler and NJCF began developing My Schools Newark by commissioning a survey by the Global Strategy Group. They polled Newark voters and ran focus groups with Newark school parents to learn and understand their feelings on how to improve the school selection and enrollment experience. The survey found (see here for key findings) that parents found the district system “hard to use.” Nearly half of parents in Newark say that they or someone they know had a hard time finding whom to contact for support or questions and 92% wanted a better option to help them choose where to enroll their child.
Once My Schools Newark was put into beta form, focus groups of parents were universally enthusiastic; with just a few exceptions, every parent rated the platform’s “usability” 7 out of 10 or higher and vastly preferred the information offered by the NJCF website to the information available from the district site. The “Explore Schools” tool is especially popular, allowing parents to compare city schools by academic scores and sports programs, and bookmark schools for later consideration. Parents also like the map tool that lets them type in their address or zip code and figure out which schools are in their preferred radius.
Parents shared their concerns about the district enrollment system: they found it hard to get up-to-date and accurate information, often resorting to Google searches to get meaningful insights. Nearly all who were asked said they welcome a new resource that makes it easier and more direct to get information about all school options in Newark.
“Wow, it’s all there! It gives you everything, the magnets, and the charters. Very interesting.” noted a parent participating in My Schools Newark focus groups with children attending a Newark high school. Another Newark parent said, “[This] pretty much has everything to make a far better-informed decision on what schools to select.”
“It certainly bridges the gap for parents by keeping us informed and up to date,” said parent Sabrina Brison. “Up til now there was no place where you can get all your questions answered. Now it’s all in one location. Thank God for My Schools Newark. Also, it’s bilingual and I can’t wait for my friends to try it.”
Thompson started testing My Schools Newark last December, contacting Newark families through social and digital engagement and gathering feedback from Newark schools and community groups. The platform received more than 45,000 unique visits during the initial public phase, providing her development team with quality data about user habits that will improve the experience for families in the future.
Last month My Schools Newark also hosted a virtual school fair to assist families during the Newark Enrolls application period, including representatives from over 20 schools from the district, charter, and pre-k sectors in Newark. More than 100 parents and family members registered to attend the event.
Much like any other app or software, My Schools Newark will grow over time, by responding to the feedback from its parent-users that will help the team make fixes, add new features, and increase outreach–including more school fairs and partnerships with community-based organizations.