Newark public high schools are divided into highly unequal camps, with thriving magnet schools for a select group of students and schools with open admissions for the rest, district data shows.

For example, at Technology High School, more than 70% of students met state math standards in 2019, and 100% of students graduated in their final year. Meanwhile, at Weequahic High School, 0% of students met math standards and only 75% received diplomas, according to the data.

What sets the schools apart is that technology is a selective magnet school that their students can choose, while Weequahic is a comprehensive school that must admit anyone who applies.

The district’s eligibility guidelines have created a two-tier system with each group of schools serving different groups of students and achieving vastly different results according to recently released data. In general, the six magnet schools enroll far fewer students with special needs and have much higher test scores, graduation rates, and enrollment rates than the six comprehensive schools, the data shows.

Superintendent Roger León has set out to reform comprehensive schools, but the pandemic has continued to weigh on them. Absence rates skyrocketed in September at four of the comprehensive schools, while rates declined at all but one of the magnet schools.

“We can’t maintain this inequality – it’s just not right,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a Newark education attorney who heads the district high school parenting council.

If half of high schools can handpick their students and the other half can’t, “naturally it will create inequalities,” she added. “That’s common sense.”

The comprehensive schools are open to everyone and offer general courses in addition to professional programs. They also offer bilingual and specialized educational services. In four schools, 20% or more of the students are disabled. At Barringer and East Side, more than 30% of students are still learning English.

In contrast, the magnet schools serve relatively few students with special needs. They are designed for high achievers and accept students based on grades, attendance lists, and test scores. The most sought-after magnet schools – Science Park and Technology – accept less than a third of applicants.

All magnet schools serve a lower proportion of students with disabilities than all comprehensive schools, and none of the magnet schools have a bilingual program, as indicated in the district enrollment guide.

The district’s admissions policy almost ensures that magnet schools enroll the best performing students who have high grades in middle school, rarely missed school, and pass the magnet school entrance exam well.

Unsurprisingly, magnet schools outperform comprehensive schools in almost every academic respect.

Distance learning has challenged schools across the country as some students struggle to get online from home or balance schoolwork and other commitments.

In Newark, four of the six comprehensive schools saw an increase in absenteeism in the first month of this school year, in which all students studied remotely, compared to the same month last year. At these schools, two to three-quarters of students missed two or more school days in September – a red flag indicating a high risk of being chronically absent throughout the school year.

In contrast, five of the six magnet schools actually had lower absenteeism rates in September than last year.

Yvette Jordan is a history teacher at Central High School, a comprehensive school where 53% of students were classified as chronically absent in September.

Many of her students find it difficult to show up for virtual classes because they feel isolated or distracted at home, or caring for younger siblings, she said. Other students write that they cannot make it to the live video class because their Wi-Fi connections are down. Still others have to earn paychecks; One of her students recently attended a video class from his job.

“They have to do what they have to do to help at home and put food on the table,” Jordan said.

Superintendent León, a former school principal, took charge of the district two years ago and promised to revitalize its high schools. In particular, he vowed to restore the comprehensive high schools to their former state.

“We have six magnet high schools that are doing well from an academic standpoint and six comprehensive high schools that have run this nation in the past,” León told the state education authority last year. “Well, these six comprehensive high schools are actually lost.”

A district spokesperson did not answer questions about the dates and the differences between comprehensive school and magnet school.

León has started to shake up comprehensive schools. He installed new headmasters in several of them, expanded their professional programs, and linked them to a magnet school to encourage the exchange of resources and expertise. Most school graduation and enrollment rates have improved over the past year – although they are still far behind the selective magnet schools.

At the same time, León has taken steps that could undermine his own efforts to modernize comprehensive schools. He introduced a new magnetic school admissions test that gives these schools another way to select the best performing students. And he’s opening three new “specialized” high schools that focus on international relations, data science, and fashion and design. (The district already has two specialized high schools, Newark Vocational and Eagle Academy for Young Men.)

According to the enrollment guide, the technical schools will test applicants in the same way as the magnet schools – including assessing their grades, attendance lists and test results. The admissions policy means that these schools, just like magnet schools, will be able to suck out the highest performing students while leaving comprehensive schools to train students with the greatest needs.

At Barringer High School, one of the largest comprehensive schools, 30% of students are still learning English – compared to 0-2% of students at any Magnet School. In the last school year, 13% of Barringer students enrolled by mid-year. Those junior students who may have recently arrived in the country or have been forced to leave other schools often face major challenges for teachers who must strive to catch up with them. In the meantime, only 0-3% of magnetic students have enrolled in the middle of the year.

Chantee Crespo’s son is a junior at Barringer. She was pleased with her son’s teachers and the new headmaster, Jose Aviles, who cut suspensions, recruited vacant teachers and restarted the school’s parents’ association.

“I’m a happy parent when it comes to barringers,” she said.

Yet Crespo was not thrilled when her son enrolled with Barringer after being passed over by the select schools to which he applied. Because magnet schools take in the top performing students and, consequently, get the best results, comprehensive schools have built a reputation as secondary schools for students who didn’t make the cut, she said.

“If you don’t go to any of the other schools, it’s like you’re in Barringer now,” said Crespo, whose own mother banned her from going to Barringer because of her stigma. “I think it’s some kind of punishment.”

The data comes from school-level reports the district released last month, showing numbers from the 2019-20 school year, as well as absenteeism reported at a recent school council meeting. Since the students did not take any state tests this spring, the test results are from 2019, as are the university enrollment rates from this fall.

While the reports show the severe inequality among county schools, they do not provide a complete picture of Newark High Schools. That’s because the city’s charter schools, where around 20% of students were enrolled in the past, don’t publish similar data. And the state doesn’t segregate charter school performance reports by grade level, making it difficult to compare traditional and charter high schools.

At all grade levels, Newark charter schools have fewer students with disabilities and far fewer English learners than the district’s schools.

“They must be subjected to the same scrutiny as traditional public schools,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP.