October 25 — 3:14 pm, 2013

PSP responds to Helen Gym’s commentary on universal enrollment

If the Notebook is going to delve into the proposed universal enrollment process, it should begin with the facts. 

Start with the purpose of universal enrollment: to simplify the process of applying to schools for families and make access to the city’s best schools more equitable. Also note that universal enrollment is a goal of the Great Schools Compact, which was signed by Mayor Nutter, the School District, charter and Catholic school leaders, and the state secretary of education. Philadelphia School Partnership serves as project manager to the Compact Committee, which includes representatives from all of these.

The Compact states: 

We will pursue a system of “universal enrollment” – i.e., aligning schools’ application procedures, from public announcements to application materials to lottery dates and other timing, as uniformly as possible. Expanding the number of high performing schools will only truly serve parents and students if they are more readily able to access, understand and apply for the options available to them.

Here are other important clarifications to Helen Gym’s commentary:

  • The Compact Working Group on universal enrollment is not a private entity, but rather a working group consisting of school operators, representatives of the School District, education nonprofits, and a student advocacy organization. It is an advisory group only. The working group has sought and received parent feedback on universal enrollment over the past six months in a number of venues. It has also sought and received feedback from school leaders, community and faith-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, and other education leaders. Before implementation by the District, a vote by the School Reform Commission would likely be required, which in turn would require additional public discussion.
  • Universal enrollment does not make choices for students. Students choose schools and rank them in order of preference, and universal enrollment uses software to attempt to give every student the highest possible match. In New Orleans, 84 percent of students receive one of their top three choices, and 99 percent receive one of their top five choices. In Denver, 70 percent of all students get their first choice, and 84 percent of students receive a top-three choice.
  • Early-stage interviewing for an executive director to oversee universal enrollment had begun in late summer, but has been postponed due to the delay in full implementation of PhillySchoolApp.
  • As proposed, students who desire to attend their neighborhood District school would still be assured of that option under universal enrollment.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did not fund universal enrollment in Philadelphia.
  • In all cities that have used universal enrollment, data systems have been established to ensure confidentiality of student data. School operators have access to the data only for students who apply to their schools, as is the case under existing practices. Here’s how the system works in New Orleans. The data-controversy example of inBloom, from New York, that Gym cites is unrelated to New York City’s long-running universal enrollment system.
  • Until Philadelphia school operators formally agree to participate in a universal enrollment matching system, none of the policy decisions around how the system would work can be finalized. But it is true that students receive a single match in New Orleans, New York, and Denver. This benefits the many students who, under previous practices, ended up without an acceptance to any schools or only to their neighborhood school; at the same time, it does limit the number of acceptances (or "matches") for those students who, today, may be accepted to five or more schools and, then, can only choose one. For example, at the briefing for City Council that Gym references, a parent told the story of her child who was rejected by all of the charter schools he applied to — and denied admission to his neighborhood school because of overcrowding. Note that a universal enrollment system would not limit application choices: Students would be able to apply to multiple schools and rank their choices in order of preference.

The bottom line is that the current system is too complicated and unfair for far too many families across the city. All students should have equal access to high-quality schools, and school operators from all sectors are collaborating to make this possible.

Kristen Forbriger is the manager of communications and public affairs for the Philadelphia School Partnership.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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