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Commentary: It's time to adopt a common enrollment system, starting with high school

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This is a guest blog, and the ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Send submissions to notebook@thenotebook.org.


by Susan Gobreski

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

We need to prioritize the elements of this reform that address unmet needs for children, are supported by research, and draw upon and improve the practice and experience in other places.

Education Voters of Pennsylvania is calling upon the School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite to adopt an equitable, system-wide common enrollment system, starting with high school. A common enrollment system would allow a student to apply to all public schools – both district and charter -- through a single application. And there would be just one timetable for enrollment.

The challenge of school enrollment is greatest at the high school level. Parents must navigate the maze of 26 district-run neighborhood schools, 17 district-run magnet schools, 11 district-run citywide schools and 35 charter schools. There are also specialized academic or career education programs of study available within particular high schools. These programs offer diverse opportunities and help attract people to city schools. But there are still more students than there are “high-quality seats” available in these schools.

A recent study by Research for Action documented the confusion, misinformation, and unfairness of the current process of high school choice in Philadelphia. Many schools have different paperwork, interviews, timelines, and other application requirements.

Having a process that is so complex and cumbersome means that not everyone will engage in it; inherently, the system has desirable seats and leftover seats. To make the process sane and fair, we need it to be easy and transparent for parents -- or for students themselves.

Other cities are moving to a simplified common enrollment process that includes charter and district-run schools. Denver established a district-wide system this past school year that consolidated more than 60 application processes into one timeline, one application, and one process for all public schools, with promising results.  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 students who are from the neighborhood (using the current catchment area as a guide) and with some reserved for students to access in the new city-wide process. This approach would help to ensure that a broader population has access to new programs and to prevent displacement.

The new common enrollment system should follow a few principles and best practices based on research, and use 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 fitting seat.  It is only a choice if you have two things from which to choose.

Make 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 the information should be in one place. Short, simple forms with good directions -- 8th graders should be able to do it themselves, if necessary.

Provide plain-language information about schools with more school information and with 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.

There will be wrinkles, challenges and concerns to address, as well as political objections.  But a better high school system has to be a public and political priority. This crisis is an opportunity. A common enrollment system, 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.

Find more information about this proposal on our website: EducationVotersPA.org

Susan Gobreski is the executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania and a parent of children attending public schools in Philadelphia. She can be reached at sg@educationvoterspa.org.

Education Voters of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit advocacy organization working to support policies that strengthen public schools for all children. 

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