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What do parents need to know when choosing a school — LAUSD considers what information to include as it refines its unified enrollment system

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | March 12, 2018

(Photo: Getty Images)

When parents are choosing a school for their children, what do they need to know and how can they best compare schools? That’s what LA Unified is asking as it continues to build its unified enrollment system.

The first evolution of its new online application system launched last fall, and since then over 72,000 families have used it to apply for the district’s magnets and dual language programs. This October, the system will include more types of schools as well as a new search tool and a way to compare up to three schools side by side, said George Bartleson, chief of the district’s Office of School Choice. All district schools that require an application will be listed, including Zones of Choice schools and the 127 schools for advanced studies, which are an alternative to the gifted/high-ability magnet programs.

The application system already includes LA Unified’s affiliated charter schools but not independent charters. However, after next school year, independent charters could be added if the board votes to do so, Bartleson said.

The big question right now is what information parents need to be able to compare schools. Education advocates want to make sure families have equal access and a simplified process to apply for the schools that best meet their children’s needs.

To come up with a set of recommendations for the district, the Partnership for Equitable Access to Public Education Los Angeles (PEAPS-LA), invited representatives from Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans to share what they’ve learned about building a transparent, equitable, and effective enrollment system. The group, along with the office of LA Unified Board Vice President Nick Melvoin, hosted a summit on March 1 called “Putting Equity at the Center of Enrollment: Goals and Their Key Levers.”

Presenting school data in a transparent and user-friendly way was key to all three cities’ enrollment systems. In Denver, the school search and comparison tools were created based on what parents said was most important to them, said Shannon Fitzgerald, Denver Public Schools K-12 enrollment consultant. “We work around families’ real needs.”

So that Denver parents could easily compare schools, each school’s information is presented in a uniform way, similar to a Facebook page. Data include how schools improve over time as well as parent satisfaction.

Denver also built more tools into its system so parents could narrow their searches, such as for schools with strong special education programs or STEM or arts offerings, said Betheny Gross, research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington who has studied common enrollment systems nationwide.

“Giving parents a phone book wasn’t enough. They needed a more responsive system that could answer their questions. What schools were sharing wasn’t enough,” Gross said.

Transparency was also essential to Indianapolis’s enrollment system “to make schools’ data accessible to all,” said Caitlin Hannon, founder and executive director of Enroll Indy. She noted that the goal of a transparent system is to help families, rather than helping schools boost their enrollment. But just having an enrollment system that is equitable does not replace the need to create more quality schools, she said.

“Before we move forward, we need to be clear about what we want to accomplish,” said Seth Litt, executive director or Parent Revolution, a partner organization of PEAPS-LA. “If the goal is that every family in Los Angeles can fairly easily find a quality school that is right for their child, then we have to define what a quality school looks like and how we’re going to measure it. This is a critical moment to set goals toward equity. There’s an opportunity to learn from the successes and mistakes from these cities.”

Litt also stressed the need for constant feedback. “Moving forward, it is important for the district to check back with schools and families to understand how they are experiencing the changes in the process.”

Gross also said that frequent feedback sessions with parents are essential, as well as a willingness to adjust the system over time and to identify what might not be working. For instance, Denver added more support for disadvantaged families when it noticed that participation in the enrollment system in some parts of the city was lower.

Broadening the kinds of schools included in an enrollment system also helps ensure equity, said David Osborne, director of Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute and who has written about unified enrollment systems in these cities in his book, “Reinventing America’s Schools.”

• Read more: Reinventing America’s Schools: 9 Inspiring Case Studies of Cities and Educators Rethinking Classrooms for the 21st Century

“These enrollment systems are designed to level the playing field, giving every family an equal opportunity to get their children into high-quality schools. So the more types of schools that are included, the more effective they are at doing that. LA should definitely include charters, if it wants to treat all children equitably,” Osborne said.

And transportation is another big issue, Osborne said. In Denver, for example, transportation is not provided to many families, particularly if they choose charter schools. “This means families without a car, or parents working two jobs, do not have an equal shot at quality schools for their children.”

New Orleans required all of its charter schools to provide transportation to every student. “However, LA is so big that I doubt that’s practical,” Osborne said. “I would imagine LA would have to limit such a commitment to schools within a certain number of miles of a child’s home. But I think we have to get much more creative about school transportation than we used to be, with the yellow school buses doing prescribed routes every day. We live in the age of Uber and Lyft, and we need to think outside the box. Denver is beginning to do this with its Success Express shuttles in a few shared enrollment zones, but I think we can go much further, if districts are able to get creative.”

Gaby Fighetti, assistant superintendent for student enrollment at Louisiana Recovery School District’s Enroll NOLA, said at the summit, “The technology and the scale are not the biggest barrier. The real challenge is getting the people in the room to work together, and I think in LA it would be a challenge to navigate the politics,” she said.

Next month, PEAPS-LA will bring its recommendations to the district so they can be included in the system when the enrollment window opens next fall, said Nadia Diaz Funn, executive director of Alliance for a Better Community, which is a member of PEAPS-LA.

They will also present a list of their preliminary conclusions on what they think LA can learn from the three cities.

“It was helpful to hear from the panel that having an effective system is not so much about technology but more about the people working together around the real needs of families. That was encouraging,” Diaz Funn said about the March 1 gathering.

She said what families in LA have been asking for over and over from the enrollment process is “the transparency around how good the schools are and making the process simple and easy to understand.”

Melvoin said that the unified enrollment system is an essential part of the “equity and access-for-all perspective” in LA Unified. He said he’s looking forward to having an enrollment system that includes all of the district’s programs and schools, and eventually independent charter schools as well.

LA Unified’s interim superintendent, Vivian Ekchian, said at the summit that any recommendations will be welcome by the district and that unified enrollment “is not the solution but only the first step to close the opportunity gap for our kids.”

Board President Mónica García, who was the keynote speaker at the summit, said like all changes in the district, this could be a lengthy process toward a more equitable enrollment system, but the goal is there. “We need to have a real perspective of what families really need and make that our goal.”

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