Ed Voter’s Common Enrollment Brief

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Philadelphia should adopt a citywide common enrollment system for high school.

For  PDF version click: Common Enrollment Brief

For more details click: An Effective Common Enrollment System

Philadelphia is in transition again. District leaders have said that they want to create more high quality seats, create more choices for families, and give schools more autonomy in how they structure their academic program and culture. There is extensive discussion about reorganizing schools: re-aligning grade configurations, closing some places, expanding others and the role of charter schools in the district�s future.

As we consider which elements of reform should be at the front of the line, we need to prioritize the ones that target specific problems; that address unmet needs for children, are supported by research and draw upon and improve the practice of, and experience, in other places.

The SRC and Superintendent should adopt a new, equitable, city-wide, common enrollment system for high school.

A city-wide common enrollment system is one in which there is a single application that allows a student to apply to all public schools, and there is one timetable for enrollment. There are several benefits of a simpler system: it is more accessible; the enrollments for schools can be determined earlier which allows schools to plan for the coming cohort of students including planning programs, schedules and staffing, as well as allowing them to begin meeting students.

While the current system in Philadelphia does allow parents to apply to some magnet and other special admission schools run by the School District or to apply directly to charter schools one at a time, there are fewer opportunities than there are students, and the existing process of “exercising choice” is very complicated and often patently unfair.  The burden on parents is greatest at the high school level, where parents must navigate the maze of 25 district-run neighborhood schools, 23 charter schools, 18 district-run magnet schools, and 12 district-run citywide schools.  Applications can also be made for specialized academic programs or career and technical education programs of study available within particular high schools. Schools vary widely in other ways, like curriculum, faculty expertise, support services for struggling students, average family income and demographic characteristics, and academic outcomes.

This complex and cumbersome process means that not everyone will engage in it; the set up inherently has a system of desirable seats and leftover seats.

A recent study by Research for Action documented the confusion, misinformation, and unfairness of the current process of high school choice in Philadelphia and its longer term impact on the experience of students.  Many schools have different paperwork, interviews, and other application requirements.  District-run schools have a single application deadline, but charter schools often have different timelines.

The process is overwhelming even for the most determined parents. The RFA report called for a clear and transparent school selection process where more information on school quality and attributes would be made widely available to students and parents. They also point out that improvements to the management and timeline of the process could stabilize school communities thus improving the learning conditions on Day 1 for high school students.

In order to make the process one that is sane and fair, the adoption of a citywide common enrollment system would make the process of choosing a school easier and more transparent for busy parents—or even for students themselves—in order to provide more people with the opportunity to participate.  There is strong demand for district run programs that are designed to attract students and charter enrollments are up.  Parents want both more choices and the chance to exercise them. They choose schools for a variety of reasons including opportunities, academics, safety, school culture and even family demands, such as transportation. We need to build a system that meets the needs of our community.

Parent satisfaction is higher in schools where parents can affirmatively enroll their children; it may also improve student outcomes in that some adolescents may perform better academically in a school they have chosen with a stronger commitment to the school and better attendance.

Being labeled “reform” is no guarantee of success and many “reforms” have exacerbated inequity, rather than address it. However, a well-designed framework has the potential to finally create a level playing field for families trying to find a public school that meets their child’s needs and interests.

Other cities are moving to a simplified, common enrollment process for both charter schools and district-run schools. New York has a common enrollment system across its diverse array of high schools.  Denver established a district-wide system this past school year that consolidated over 60 application processes into one timeline, one application, and one process for both charter and district schools. Like New York, and Boston too, it also uses a sophisticated school assignment algorithm designed to ensure the maximum number of students would get their first choice and to prevent gaming of the system. The first year results were promising.  Parents participated at high rates and most students got one of their top three choices.

Concurrent with implementing a common enrollment system, the SRC must increase the number of high quality seats across the system, otherwise, too many students will end up in schools they did not choose and the process becomes a sham. One way to do this would be to seed magnet-like or specialized programs within every comprehensive high school, with seats reserved for both students who are from the neighborhood (using the current catchment area as guide) and with some reserved for students to access in the new city-wide process. This approach would help to both ensure a broader population has access to new programs and prevent displacement of local students.

The new common enrollment system should follow a few principles and best practices based on research, using lessons learned in other cities and from past experiments here:

  • Promote equity and access:  more choices, available to all: every student must have the same opportunity to exercise a choice and find a seat that suits them.  It is only a “choice” if you have two things from which to choose.
  • There must be a commitment to every community in Philadelphia. High quality schools are key to healthy neighborhoods, so seats should be distributed fairly throughout the city.
  • Make it easy to use.  All information in one place. Short, simple forms with good directions – an 8th grader should be able to do it themselves if necessary.
  • Provide plain language information about schools with more school information and ratings based on more than test scores.
  • Use a sophisticated algorithm to match students with schools that accounts for both preferences and student needs, and guards against school segregation by family income, race, disability, or other factors.
  • Establish a common application form and timeline. This allows students to access all possibilities (charter and district) and provides an enrollment schedule that allows schools time to plan.
  • Establish a broad parent outreach and support system. Use community organizations and city offices to get the word out.
  • Provide back-up systems to address problems.  There should be complaint procedures, direct transition support for students when needed and fair transfer options during the year.
  • Evaluate results and improve the system.  Gather feedback throughout the process and after implementation to make future adjustments.

The District’s new approach to autonomy, a commitment to the development of school level leadership and this idea for expanding seats in comprehensive high schools, joined with school choices and common enrollment together provide a powerful framework for school improvement. These programs could be used to create the foundation of whole school change through an instructional approach (such as project based learning), or topic area theme (like STEM) created by professional learning communities working with the principal in the school itself (a research supported proven reform that should be another priority), They should then meet annual achievement benchmarks.  Programs that are meeting achievement benchmark targets would receive resources to increase the number of seats in the program.

Something like this would drive the rapid creation of new high quality seats available in a much more equitable manner, (and the result would also provide the SRC with immediate feedback on which seats students are not seeking).

Establishing a common enrollment system will be a challenging technical and political task and needs to be developed with community participation and feedback.  Leaders in Philadelphia should learn from past mistakes and immediately open this process for public input and then seek feedback as the system is implemented. We need to ask people in other cities what challenges they find in their system and how they would suggest improving it.  And in a time of diminished resources, we need to figure out how to identify outside resources, including technical, community partnerships and financial investments in this innovation to support such a transition. The School District will need to plan to devote time and energy to making it work.  Yet, the interests of students must receive top priority, rather than the challenges of timelines or implementation or political considerations.

Implementation should begin with the high schools where the number of schools to pilot is manageable and the current system provides a basis for expansion.

A common enrollment system is a sensible approach that is being used with success in other places. There will be wrinkles, challenges to work out, concerns to be addressed and political objections from those who want to be able to protect their ability to exercise the control they have in the current system. However, tackling the problem is imperative and implementing a solution that marries research-based practice with community wants and needs must be a priority.  This crisis is an opportunity. Common enrollment, paired with the development of new high quality seats, is a structural change directed at changing things for students, not adults. It is “reform” done right.

Proposed Elements of a Common Enrollment Policy for High Schools in Philadelphia

  • Promote equity and access: more choices, available to all.  Every student must have the same opportunity to exercise a choice and find a seat that suits them.  It is only a “choice” if you have two things from which to choose.
    • The distribution of who receives their first or second choice placement should be fairly distributed across demographic groups, income brackets and zip codes.
      • The system must emphasize the educational benefits of student inclusion and diversity in every school and the process should not lead to segregation by family income, gender, race, national origin, religion, disability, or other such factors.
    • There must be a commitment to every community in Philadelphia.  High quality schools are key to healthy neighborhoods, so seats should be distributed fairly throughout the city.
    • Make it easy to use and consistent.  All the essential information must be available from one source (i.e. parents should not have to seek information from multiple sources).  There need to be short, simple forms with good directions – an 8th grader should be able to do it themselves if necessary.  Parents, educators, and the public must easily understand how to use the system.
      • There should be one application form and one timeline across all schools.
      • Rules and forms must be short in length, written in simple (no higher than 6th grade reading level) and clear language, and translated into many languages.
      • Families should be able to complete an application online or by paper; neither internet access nor paper distribution logistics should be barriers.
      • All information must be available on the Internet, with free printed copies available in every school principal’s office and public libraries.
      • Transcripts and administrative data held by the District or charter schools should automatically be sent to all the schools listed on the student’s application form.
      • Students should be able to exercise choice and preferences on their own behalf when needed; an in loco parentis option must be available to students.
      • There needs to be publicly available knowledge about the number of seats that a school is projected to fill in a particular school year to prevent holding of seats during the process.  Every school should have published enrollment targets.
    • Provide plain language information about schools with more school information and ratings based on more than test scores.
    • School performance must be measured, calculated, and explained in the same way for all schools.
    • Grading systems should be based on multiple measures.
    • The information on the different program characteristics of District and charter schools should be consolidated into one search tool that is available alongside the application materials.
    • Information on the availability of programs to all students (e.g. open or selective participation, what grades are included) must be included.
  • Use a sophisticated algorithm to match students with schools that accounts for both preferences and student needs, and guards against school segregation by family income, race, disability, or other factors. The algorithm should include factors such as:
    • Neighborhood preferences.
    • Provisions for siblings.
    • Transportation considerations.
    • One thing to consider might be a secondary algorithm used to assign a set of selections on the application to any student that ultimately does not submit one (after multiple interventions) in order to prevent this group from being “last served”.  This should include transportation and geography.
  • Establish a common application form and timeline. This allows students to access all possibilities (charter and district) and provides an enrollment schedule that allows schools time to plan.
    • Creating a system that provides more stability on Day 1 of every school year must be a priority in the implementation of a new enrollment plan.
  • Establish a broad parent outreach and support system. Use community organizations and city offices to get the word out.
    • All eligible students and families must have equal access to using the system and selecting a desired school.
    • There should be additional training for guidance counselors and community partners to ensure accurate support for students and families.
    • Extraordinary planning, effort, and a budget for anticipated costs should be anticipated and provided for outreach and support, in order to ensure that individual families receive direct and personal assistance to overcome potential barriers to access, such as cultural differences, extreme poverty, illiteracy, disability, or limited English proficiency.
  • Provide back-up systems to address problems.  There should be complaint procedures and direct transition support for students when needed and fair transfer options during the year.
    • Parents must have the right to file complaints and have them addressed quickly, with personal attention, and without favoritism.
    • The district must provide a fair and easy-to-use process for student transfers between schools during the school year.
    • Schools must be prohibited from excluding or expelling students without first providing adequate support services, interventions, and parent involvement opportunities.
    • When students are expelled from their assigned school, the district must provide high quality alternatives that meet student needs and lead back to normal school assignment as soon as possible.
  • Evaluate results and improve the system.  Gather feedback throughout the process and after implementation to make future adjustments.
    • A third party, detailed evaluation of the student assignment outcomes by race, income, neighborhood and special needs should be commissioned during the implementation phase and then at regular intervals to ensure decision-makers and the public have good information to monitor outcomes against District goals and make mid-course corrections.
    • An annual parent satisfaction survey, to make sure the system is achieving its goals of expanding opportunity for all students in a user-friendly manner.

    For more information:
    Data on Philadelphia�s District and Charter schools:  http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/about
    Data on Philadelphia�s District and Charter high schools
    http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/uploads/Sh/9H/Sh9HqcweNZXyXtf1dZMpKg/HS-Directory-2012_small.pdf
    Research for Action report on high school application challenges:
    http://www.researchforaction.org/wp-content/uploads/publication-photos/110/Gold_E_Transition_to_High_School_School.pdf
    Data on Denver�s schools and its SchoolChoice system:
    http://communications.dpsk12.org/newsroom/73/55/
    http://schoolchoice.dpsk12.org/2012-13-school-year/
    http://www.aplusdenver.org/_docs/SchoolChoiceTransparencyCommitteeReportFinal6.12.12.pdf
    New York�s high school enrollment process
    http://schools.nyc.gov/ChoicesEnrollment/High/Admissions/default.htm