Tag Archives: district-charter partnerships

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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SXSWedu Recap: District-Charter Partnerships, Diversity in Edtech, Better Teachers

Howdy from Austin! It’s been a jam-packed week at SXSWedu, an annual conference promoting education innovation. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten to engage in conversations I’m not hearing anywhere else. Summaries and takeaways from three of my favorite panels and events below:

  1. Effective Partnerships: Charters and ISDs panel with Dr. Daniel King (superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District), Tom Torkelson (co-founder of the charter school network IDEA Public Schools), and Bellwether’s very own Mary Wells.

Those wanting to understand how to advance district-charter collaboration can look to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The partnership between IDEA Public Schools and the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA) is a rare example of a partnership that’s been fruitful for both sides and should ultimately benefit children throughout the Valley. Together, the two entities have designed joint human capital systems for functions such as staff recruitment and new teacher training. Although other cities can look to the IDEA-PSJA district-charter partnership as a successful model, panelists cautioned against underestimating the time, effort, and stakeholder buy-in this type of collaboration requires. IDEA attempted a similar partnership with Austin ISD in the past, but the political dynamic became ugly—and they eventually had to end their partnership. And elsewhere in the country, including New York City, you often hear about charter and traditional district schools as hostile competitors.

  1. Diversity Need in Educational Technology panel with Jaime Casap (Google), Timothy Jones (Martha’s Table, a DC-based nonprofit), and Stephanie Cerda (Manor Independent School District).

The panelists discussed what we know about the lack of diversity in tech companies—Google released abysmal stats last year—and why we must ensure edtech companies don’t follow that same route. Despite the ample discussion around how edtech and personalized learning have the potential to close academic gaps for historically marginalized students, there’s little discourse around why edtech companies are often not diverse from a human capital standpoint. The panelists and audience discussed a few strategies: encouraging tech companies to be more inclusive through staff trainings, raising parent awareness of tech careers, and supporting teachers in high-needs communities to better articulate opportunities in coding and computer science to students. The breadth of these strategies—and the fact that they’re aimed to influence different stakeholder groups—shows there are no silver bullet solutions. But if the edtech industry can develop a more diverse workforce, it could ultimately act as a leader for the rest of the tech sector.

  1. Great Instructors: Are They Born or Built? keynote session with Elizabeth Green (co-founder and CEO of Chalkbeat) and David Epstein (reporter at ProPublica).

If you’ve read Green’s Building a Better Teacher, you know her argument that teaching is a science that must be taught—teachers are made, not born. Yet Epstein argues just the opposite: there are some people who are innately better at teaching, and the profession would benefit if there were more teachers with the cognitive skills that make one born to be a teacher. The two of them duked it out, each one offering research studies and anecdotes to support their theory.

Although both had compelling arguments, I took issue with a couple of their points: Green pointed to Teach For America as proof that the best and brightest don’t always become great teachers, but the research evidence she cited was not rigorous. And Epstein used sports analogies to bolster his argument, noting that professional athletes are born with certain raw skills, but it doesn’t make sense to conflate cognitive and physical skills. I walked away thinking about the policy implications of each of their arguments—Epstein’s stance, for instance, implies that the teaching pipeline must change, by creating different or more selective entrance requirements into teacher prep programs.

SXSWedu continues through Thursday afternoon; follow @SXSWedu for more updates.