School & District Management

Denver, New Orleans Offer Lessons on Streamlining Enrollment Between Sectors

By Arianna Prothero — May 12, 2015 4 min read
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New systems to streamline enrollment between district and charter schools have addressed some problems parents faced as more school options have entered the market. On the other hand, some issues persist and others have been created with the advent of unified enrollment systems, according to a new report from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Common enrollment systems, as they’re also called, offer a single form and deadline for families to enroll in almost all schools within a city—including regular district schools, charters, magnets, and in some cases voucher programs at private schools. A computer program matches students to schools based on things such as family preferences, school admission criteria, and number of open seats. (For more details on how the matching algorithms work, click here).

The CRPE report looks specifically at Denver and New Orleans, the first two cities to launch common enrollment systems that include both district and charter schools. The report’s authors caution not to draw too many conclusions from the study, as the systems they examined have only been around since 2012.

The study found that common enrollment systems simplified unruly processes that often confused parents. Prior to these systems, parents or guardians would have to juggle multiple school enrollment deadlines and application forms—some of which could be quite complex.

It’s also much harder for some to game the system—for example, reserving a spot for a well-connected parent—when the process is standardized and computerized.

And CRPE found that the majority of students were matched to a school among their parent’s top picks. The charts below show the percentage of students matched to their first, second, and third choice schools each year:

But even though the system may be fairer, parents can still feel cheated, the report said. It found parents often don’t really understand how the system works and they might do things that actually hurt their chances of getting matched to their top picks—for example, only list one school on the application form instead of the total number allowed. “None of the parents we spoke with could explain to us how the matching algorithm worked,” the report says.

Furthermore, there aren’t necessarily enough quality schools to meet demand, which inevitably leaves some students matched to schools their parents don’t want.

“More than anything else we learned from the early implementation of these policies, the false hope that can come with a second-best outcome might threaten the policy’s perceived legitimacy,” the report’s authors write.

The study also found that New Orleans parents were more divided over the benefits of a common enrollment system than their counterparts in Denver.

Many New Orleans parents reported that it was actually easier to enroll their child in a school prior to OneApp, the city’s common enrollment system. This was in part due to the fact that parents used to be able to enroll their kids in school at any time of year, and that schools would often canvas neighborhoods and sign students up for school from their homes.

By examining data from the two enrollment systems, the study also found:

  • Black and Hispanic parents are more concerned with a school’s performance than white parents;
  • All parents prefer schools closer to their homes, but that is less true of black parents;
  • And all parents prefer diverse schools, but black and Hispanic parents are much more comfortable with higher levels of diversity.

Although common enrollment systems have generated a wealth of new data on what parents want, those data are not being leveraged, according to the study.

System-level leaders told CRPE researchers they use enrollment data to guide decisions, but it can take years for policy changes to come to fruition. Changes at the school level could have a shorter ramp-up time, but the study found that many school leaders are not taking advantage of the data.

In addition to doing that, the report also recommends that cities with common enrollment systems help parents truly understand the matching process through simulations or interactive tools and provide parents with the means to make personalized decisions through things such school choice counselors, among other things.

The report’s full recommendations can be found here. And if you want to learn more about this topic, join Education Week for a webinar on guiding parents through choice on May 18, from 2 to 3 p.m. Eastern time. Click here for registration details.

Graph from ‘Common Enrollment, Parents, and School Choice: Early Evidence from Denver and New Orleans’ by Betheny Gross, Michael DeArmond, and Patrick Denice.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.