Families & the Community

Charters Adopt Common Application Systems

Programs simplify enrollment process
By Katie Ash — September 24, 2013 6 min read
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In most school districts with charter school options, parents must navigate a complex web of charter school applications, deadlines, and lotteries specific to each individual school—but that is changing in a handful of cities across the country.

To combat the confusion and make applying to charters easier and more transparent, a small but growing number of school districts, as well as charter school organizations, have rolled out new programs such as universal enrollment systems and common applications to centralize and streamline the process.

Among those efforts:

• Denver launched a centralized enrollment system called SchoolChoice in 2010 for all district-run and charter schools in the 85,000-student system.

• In New Orleans, the Louisiana Recovery School District, in partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board, debuted a universal enrollment system called OneApp for charter and district-run schools in February 2012 and is now entering its third year of a unified lottery system serving the city’s 44,000 students.

• The Newark and District of Columbia school systems are making plans to implement universal enrollment systems for their district-run and charter schools for the 2014-15 school year.

“The promise of a marketplace of schools is also a promise that kids and parents can navigate that marketplace,” said Armen Hratchian, the vice president for K12 schools at Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of education organizations and philanthropies aiming to improve education for all students in that city, where educators are also having conversations about a shift toward more centralization. "[Right now], there’s no single place, time, or process for parents and kids to select and enroll in schools, so we’re not really maximizing choice.”

How It Works

In a universal enrollment system, there is one application, timeline, and lottery for all the schools that participate, including both district-run and charter schools. Parents rank their schools in order of preference, then an algorithm, which takes into account certain preferences (such as geographic location or where siblings attend school), generates one single, best offer for each student.

Such a system makes it much easier for parents and students to understand their options, said Gabriela Fighetti, the executive director of enrollment for the Louisiana Recovery School District, and makes it easier for schools to plan for their upcoming school year.

Before OneApp, parents had to keep track of dozens of applications and deadlines, and “at the end of that process, you could’ve gotten into more than one school, or you could’ve gotten into no schools,” said Ms. Fighetti.

That caused an enormous amount of churn in the beginning of the school year as students scrambled to figure out which school they wanted to attend, making it hard for schools to know exactly how many students they would end up with.

Overall, said Ms. Fighetti, “you can give many more families a better offer if no family is holding multiple seats.”

Getting Charter Buy-In

But convincing charter schools, which are public schools that are generally granted greater autonomy and flexibility than typical district-run schools, to join in a centralized process of enrollment isn’t an easy task.

None of the cities that are currently using a universal enrollment system—with the exception of Denver—have 100 percent participation from all the charters in their districts.

Even in Denver, it was a hard sell, said Tom Boasberg, that district’s superintendent.

“That first year, it wasn’t clear if all the charters were going to wish to be a part of it,” he said. “But the system was high quality and attractive enough that all schools elected to be part of it.”

As Newark works to put the final details on its universal enrollment system, charters there have some concerns about a common enrollment system run by the district, said Mashea Ashton, the chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund, which is helping to design the new system.

Although the current district leadership has been receptive to charter schools, she cautioned that “if there’s a change in leadership, how reliable will this system be if it lives within Newark Public Schools? That’s a question we’re all wrestling with,” she said.

But for the most part, charter schools see the move as positive, said Ms. Ashton. She hopes the centralization of the enrollment process will help dispel accusations about a lack of transparency in charter lotteries and admissions policies.

The Newark district will be issuing a memorandum of understanding to all schools about the new process there at the end of September, and all charters that want to be a part of it will have to opt in by late October, said Gabrielle Wyatt, the 37,500-student district’s deputy director of strategy and innovation.

The district has talked to and gotten tentative buy-in from 92 percent of the charters in the district, she said.

Facilitating Choice

Rather than completely overhauling the enrollment system, charter schools in some districts, such as the 1.1-million-student New York City public schools, have instead opted to create a common application to simplify the process for parents.

“Our main purpose was to make it easier in a choice environment for parents to choose,” said James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, the independent group that oversees the common application there.

The application has been in use since the 2010-11 school year, although not all charter schools in the city participate, he said.

For the most part, it is the independent charter schools that may not have much time, manpower, or money to spend on marketing and promotions that have benefited the most, said Mr. Merriman.

The charter schools still run their own lotteries and manage their own waiting lists, but the common application allows parents to sign on, enter their child’s information once, and submit it to multiple schools.

Although that makes it easier for parents and provides smaller charter schools with more visibility, the application could make it harder for parents and students to understand the unique culture at each of the schools, he said.

“There’s a sense among charters that they’re trying to brand who they are, and there’s some unease that in a common application you lose that sense of parents really understanding what the school experience is like,” said Mr. Merriman. “The more you try to integrate charters into enrollment systems that are congruent with the district, the more possibility you [will] lose that sense of autonomy.”

In the District of Columbia, 85 charter schools signed on to a common timeline to ease the burden on families, said Sujata Bhat, the project manager for My School DC, the citywide initiative that aims to bring a universal enrollment system to the 45,000-student school system.

Implementing the common timeline was the first step in building a universal enrollment system, which is expected to roll out for the 2014-15 school year.

My School DC will be unveiling the application in mid-December, said Ms. Bhat, and the initiative marks “the first time we’ve had a cross-sector partnership” between the district school system and the city’s charter schools.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as Charters Turn to More-Unified Application Systems

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