Category Archives: Education Policy

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

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How Can Governments Make Change? Go Wide or Go Deep.

Imagine a child who has experienced homelessness and who has had to change schools multiple times due to moving between foster homes, shelters, and the street. Oftentimes a young person like this becomes involved with multiple government agencies, like the Department of Child Welfare, the Department of Juvenile Justice, or the Department of Health, because the work that each of these agencies does tends to be narrowly focused on a solving a specific set of problems. Some agencies aim to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, others seek to rehabilitate youth who have committed crimes, and yet others try to prevent and treat illness and disease.

While each sector can implement its own solutions that may work some of the time for some young people, sustainable social change requires government agencies to collaborate.

But at which level of government (e.g., local, county, state, or federal) should we direct our efforts? The answer lies in the type of change we hope to create. Continue reading

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading

Can Better Data Infrastructure Prevent School Violence? We Think So.

Some states want to use federal grant money to put more guns in schools in order to prevent another episode of violence like the one that we saw in Parkland, Florida. It’s a controversial idea and one that favors grand drama over real thoughtful solutions. While it won’t grab national headlines, we could actually prevent more violence and protect more students for less money with investments into information-sharing technology.

There’s no way to know with certainty what could have prevented the tragedy in Parkland, but we do know one thing: there was enough information out there to paint a troubling picture of a young person in crisis with a desperate need for supportive services. Nikolas Cruz, who  returned to his high school armed and killed seventeen people in six minutes, was known to adults as a child in need of additional support and services.

Acting on that information is a different story. Alarmingly, we have recently learned that the adults (like psychiatrists, teachers, and law enforcement officials) who held pieces of Cruz’s story weren’t talking to each other, and there was no system in place for them to share information securely, quickly, and accurately.

Part of the problem is legal: health care, education, and child welfare privacy laws constrain the ways in which systems can share personally identifying information about young people in their care. At school safety panels earlier this summer, the Attorney General and other federal leaders suggested that these statutes are interpreted too broadly and that restricted information-sharing impedes the ability of local authorities to quickly deliver services to students in crisis.

But an important — and overlooked — part of the problem is technical. Even where there are data-sharing agreements in place, and high-quality service programs available to meet every need (and enough resources to go around), databases that track services for young people are quite literally disconnected from each other and unable to connect those services to the kids who need them. Legacy data warehouses within care agencies and schools create data silos that are nearly impenetrable. Not only do systems not talk across their bureaucratic borders, they are often incompatible with their counterparts in the next city or a neighboring county.

And even where the technical infrastructures are more modern, they rarely hold all of the information that exists or hold it in a way that is useful for providers. In fact, many systems still keep paper records or require hard copies of requests for information. As a result, direct-care staff, like nurses and school counselors, end up spending much of their days tracking down paperwork, faxing things back and forth, and cold-calling other offices instead of working with young people. Continue reading

How Do We Incentivize Charter Authorizers to Approve More High-Quality Alternative Schools? A Q&A With Colorado’s Antonio Parés.

Antonio Parés headshot via Twitter

Antonio Parés via Twitter

“Alternative education” is a catch-all term used to describe education programs for students who have not been well-served by traditional classroom environments. It can refer to computer-based rapid credit accrual opportunities, supportive programs for students who are pregnant or parenting, intensive English-language programs for students who have come to the United States with substantial education histories in another language, “second chance” placements for students expelled from traditional public schools, and everything in between. Precise definitions vary by state and school district.

While traditional public school districts have historically offered these alternative programs for their students, more and more state or local charter schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Charter statutes often allow the flexibility that makes room for innovation, which is needed to operate programs that meet the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable students. Yet ensuring appropriate accountability for alternative charter schools — crucial to fulfilling the other side of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain — has proven challenging.

Forward-thinking charter authorizers are contemplating the policies and institutional practices that create strong authorizing and accountability incentives for alternative programs. The right mix of flexibility, autonomy, rigor, and relevance can both ensure that authorizers do not just enable the existence of more alternative schools but that the schools they authorize provide the highest quality programs that best meet the needs of the students they serve. Good authorizing practices can also prevent schools that provide alternative programs from simply relaxing their standards and becoming a catch basin for low performing students.

A primary challenge for authorizers is that accountability metrics typically used to measure the performance of charter schools — such as student achievement or growth on state standardized assessments, student attendance, and four-year graduation rates — may not accurately apply. Alternative charter schools often serve students who enter with unique educational and life challenges or who are already far below grade level because of gaps in their prior schooling. Applying these measures rigidly can create disincentives for operators to open, or authorizers to approve, alternative school models. Conversely, some states create loopholes that allow alternative schools and their authorizers to evade accountability altogether. Some intrepid authorizers have invested significant time and resources in developing fair and accurate ways to measure the performance of diverse alternative schools, however, state laws and regulations do not always align with such approaches.

Colorado has begun a process of convening a cross-agency task force of leaders, experts, and policymakers to modify its authorizing system by improving the rigor and relevance of performance metrics for the state’s alternative education campuses (AECs). 

Antonio Parés, a partner at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a board member of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which convened the AEC task force. CSI is Colorado’s only statewide charter school authorizer, and it currently authorizes 39 schools serving over 17,500 PK-12 students across the state. We recently caught up with Antonio to talk about the unique needs of AECs and what that means for authorizers and state education policy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been working with a task force in Colorado to improve the ways that the state holds charter authorizers accountable for the success of their alternative education campuses. Can you tell us about that process and the challenges you’re facing?

Every year or two, CSI works with our alternative education campuses to identify “alternative measurements” for each or all of the schools. Alternative measurements include student perception surveys, in-house assessments such as NWEA or MAPS, or alternative post-secondary paths. CSI convened a statewide taskforce to review and collaborate on best practices when it comes to accountability measurements and outcomes for our alternative education campuses, schools typically serving under-credited and at-risk students. We were trying — and continue to try — to balance both the unique nature of each campus and their student population with the need for consistent, longitudinal, and comparable data points. Our goal was — and continues to be — to develop the best performance metrics and frameworks for every school. Continue reading