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.

I’ve worked with cities that only want an online enrollment guide for families. Some cities want a common application and common tools, but schools admit students via their own enrollment processes. I’ve worked in a few places where the charter sector and the district cannot come to agreement on sharing a system, but they each individually improve and streamline their enrollment. Those changes can be good. But you will not find more equity and more transparency anywhere other than a true unified enrollment system.

It seems like unified enrollment systems can benefit schools, leaders, and families. Are they too good to be true? What are some of the risks or challenges districts interested in unified enrollment should be aware of?

The biggest misstep I see is when leaders have unrealistic goals for what enrollment systems can accomplish. I tell cities they need to understand what they hope to get out of the enrollment system, and to be transparent about that. Where we have seen cities get pushback to enrollment reforms, there have often been promises made that are outside the scope of enrollment.

I’ve encountered this around desegregation goals. Unified enrollment systems help more families access their top-choice schools. They can also provide useful data on supply and demand for schools, family preferences, and gaps in access to high-demand schools. But unified enrollment will not necessarily change family preferences, integrate schools, or radically change demand for seats in individual schools. Unified enrollment is not the tool I would suggest to address these issues.

Districts should also understand that there are political considerations around this work, and there are people who may see drawbacks to a unified enrollment system. In the charter school sector, schools usually have to opt-in to participate in unified enrollment. Charter school leaders highly value autonomy and tend to resist centralization. On the other side, you have proponents of traditional schools, who may think that the intention behind making choice more accessible for families is to drain students from their schools.

It’s fairly rare in my work to hear push back from families, but when I do, it’s around timelines and getting just one matched school. In a district I worked with recently, parents told me they valued the ability to wait until later in the summer to make final school enrollment decisions — unified systems force them to make a choice much earlier. Districts also need to figure out how to account for students who enroll late or transfer mid-year.

Communications and family engagement can be a make-or-break factor in redesigning enrollment systems. What are the most important things for a district leader to consider?

It’s important to understand your population of families, who influences them, and how they get their information. How can you use that to create awareness and get the word out about unified enrollment? Every city does it differently. I’ve seen partnerships between the city and community nonprofits work very well, and I’ve seen community groups take it upon themselves to do this work. For example, when I worked in Oakland recently, some prominent community and faith-based organizations were among the primary channels for families to get information about what was going on in schools. In this case, they were central to the communication and engagement strategy.

Depending on the city, unified enrollment systems might be controlled by the school district, by a nonprofit, or by a mayor’s office. What are the pros and cons of these different arrangements?

District offices typically have the infrastructure and resources to adequately administer a complex system like this. It is the logical place for the responsibility to go. But most large districts are not known for their customer service and efficiency. For charter schools used to doing their own thing, giving control to the district can be a hard sell.

A nonprofit can be a solution where there is skepticism or adversarial relationships between the district and charter schools, or where we want the enrollment system to be independent of changes in leadership or elected officials. This can be a good compromise, but you can still lose people. In Oakland, the charter sector was unwilling to have enrollment controlled by the district, and the district was unwilling to hand over control to a new nonprofit. The city ended up with two parallel enrollment systems.

The third option is a mayor’s office or other city agency, which I love in theory, but have not worked on personally. Washington, D.C. is the only example I know of. As a solution, it may feel more neutral than the district, and more stable and trusted than a new nonprofit. The tricky part is finding an agency willing and able to take on this politically and technically challenging job.

What conditions make a city or district ripe for unified enrollment?

The most important thing is that the community, families, and education leaders are aware of the problems in their current enrollment systems and are pushing for a change. If a city hires me, they already know that their system needs work, and they have been hearing it from people in the community. Energy and excitement to make this work happen need to come from a genuine place. For every place like that, there are 10 cities who reach out to me where a few people are excited about unified enrollment, but there is not yet awareness in the community that the problem exists. Those don’t tend to go very far.

Political harmony within the education sector can make this work a lot easier. I didn’t fully realize when I left Denver Public Schools how well everyone got along, relatively speaking. The district and charter sector had common values and goals around the enrollment system. Most places do not have perfect harmony among their stakeholders, and it is still possible to make changes that will benefit families. This might mean gradually making changes that bring the city closer to a unified enrollment system, instead of doing everything at once.

If you’re interested in cities that have a unified enrollment system as part of their citywide strategy for improving education equity, check out Eight Cities, a new website from Bellwether Education Partners.

You can find Shannon Fitzgerald via LinkedIn.