Tag Archives: Unified Enrollment

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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What High School Applications and Acceptance Offers Tell Us About Chicago’s System of Schools

Before digging into the research on Chicago’s education system and talking to many of the city’s leaders for a current project at Bellwether, I categorized the district as largely traditional with a decent sized charter sector. What I learned was that Chicago has more school types and school choice than I realized, especially at the high school level. It turns out that while most of the headlines regarding the district have been about scandals and violence, a lot of people have been focused on making sure more kids go to better schools faster.

That fact was reinforced when I looked at a recent report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research on the first round of applications and offers from Chicago’s brand new high school unified enrollment system. Neerav Kingsland provides a good take on the results. I just want to reiterate one point and add a few more observations.

Screenshot of GoCPS

Screenshot via https://go.cps.edu/

Neerav points out that Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) school information and application website GoCPS is easy to use. I can’t reiterate that enough. It’s insanely intuitive and informative. When I was making school choice decisions for my son in San Francisco earlier this year, I had to toggle between Google Maps, a PDF with school information from the district, and school performance information that I collected and analyzed myself. GoCPS has a map-based interface that provides the all information parents need, and it would have given me everything in one place. Why don’t more cities with school choice have a similar platform?

On a different note, the Consortium report notes that CPS has approximately 13,000 surplus seats in the district, an oversupply in other words, which might lead to more school closures and mergers. In addition to creating easier and more equitable enrollment processes for a district, unified enrollment systems provide detailed information about parent demand (and lack thereof). School closures have been painful for CPS in the past. The unified enrollment system now gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson more information to make changes that reflect the preferences of the district’s families and, hopefully, make difficult decisions a bit easier.

Neerav also points out that families rarely rank the lowest performing schools as a first choice — a fact he interprets as families making choices based on school performance. I agree but I see something troubling in the same graph:

Students' Top-Ranked Program by School's SQRP Rating

https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/gocps-first-look-applications-and-offers

Low-income students, low-performing students, English Language Learners, students with special needs, and African American students ranked the top-performing schools lower than other subgroups. The Consortium researchers made the same observation and call for more research. I agree. It’ll be important to know whether this difference is because of inadequate communication about school choices or quality, parents preferencing lower rated schools closer to home, or some other reason altogether. (The question is ripe for human-centered investigation.) The answer will help system administrators decide how to allocate scarce resources.

I can’t say this enough: the University of Chicago’s Consortium for School Research is a remarkable institution providing high-quality, actionable, relevant, and timely research for Chicago’s education leaders to use while making high-stakes strategic decisions. Every big city should have a similar outfit.