Universal Charter School Application: A Houston Case Study
Families Empowered envisioned a universal school application that would save families time and frustration, ease the bureaucratic burden of the enrollment process for schools, and ultimately result in more: more families making deliberate and informed choices about where their kids will go to school, a more equitable distribution among families making those choices, and more children experiencing success at good-fit schools.
IDENTIFYING A NEED
Over the past seven years, Families Empowered has offered assistance to approximately 68,000 Houston area families in their search for a best-fit school for their children. In this work, the organization identified several areas of concern. An analysis of survey and application data revealed that the vast majority of families sitting on a charter school waitlist had only applied to that particular school, giving them no backup options. A confusing maze of application deadlines and procedures meant that many applications were submitted too early and never acknowledged, while others were submitted too late and immediately waitlisted. At Families Empowered-hosted Application Nights and School Fairs, parents expressed uncertainty about which applications they had successfully submitted. No wonder: it is difficult even for Families Empowered staff, who had time dedicated to the task and did not face the same obstacles as many of these families, to track the ever-growing list of application deadlines. It was clear that the disjointed school application process had created substantial and growing inequities between families who had access to information, time, and resources—and those that did not.
Families Empowered spearheaded a solution by securing three years of funding from two donors for the prototyping and development of a “universal” application, and by recruiting several local charter schools to participate, including KIPP Houston, YES Prep, Promise Community Schools, and Harmony. These partners were soon followed by A+UP, and Etoile Academy. Families Empowered pointed to the success of a universal application in the District of Columbia, which saw a significant uptick in the number of charter school applications upon implementation. As an interim step, in 2015-16, Families Empowered coordinated with partners to align their application dates – a difficult, complex, and necessary precursor to the universal application – and a massive help to parents navigating the process. This streamlining also allowed Families Empowered to focus its outreach and support in a specific window when parents needed it most.
OVERCOMING OBJECTIONS AND ALLOWING PARTNERS TO “GET OFF THE BUS”
Initially, schools expressed fears about the project’s implications on their individual campus networks: “Will it put us at risk for unstable enrollment? Will we lose our uniqueness, becoming just another box for parents to check?” Families Empowered staff patiently worked through these questions with prospective school leaders, leveraging the organization’s reputation as a trusted, neutral partner. The organization was able to build alignment and help partners align around common project goals:
- For schools: Better and more consistent data on demand for schools, fewer technological “glitches” in applications, potential overall increase in number of applications submitted, less time and resources spent guiding parents through enrollment
- For parents: Streamlined, user-friendly, “one stop” school application, effectively increasing the number of viable school options
- For the community: Greater equity in access to schools of choice
Many school leaders also expressed fear that the universal application could evolve, against what they perceived to be their best interests, into common enrollment. This could take many forms, but is usually where a state or district agency uses an algorithm to assign parents to schools (whether charter, magnet, or their traditional neighborhood public school) based on their preference rankings. Because, in many cases, it means that parents are only ultimately accepted to one school, or have to appeal to be accepted to another, this effectively constrains the number of choices they have (vs. common application where they can, theoretically, be accepted to multiple schools simultaneously). Families Empowered assured the schools that removing families and choices from the equation would be incongruent with the project’s goals. At the end of the day, not all the initial partners decided to use the universal application; one partner decided that the internal organizational changes were too overwhelming for them to participate in the pilot year. On the other hand, Families Empowered has asked additional schools to join, and several have expressed interest in being included next year. Families Empowered was able to keep the core partners together though these shifts in leadership.
LEADING THE CHARGE
After soliciting multiple bids, Families Empowered hired an education consulting partner, School Mint, to manage the technological infrastructure, including the website and digital application. Throughout the two-year process, Families Empowered consulted with experts from other markets around the country — including Oakland, D.C., Boston and New York City — that had already launched universal school applications. During the build-out, Families Empowered acted as a project manager and liaison between the developer and school partners, facilitated various rounds of internal and external systems testing, and identified areas for improvement. By proactively identifying many of the pitfalls encountered by in other markets and exposing initial flaws, the organization has paved the way for an on-time on-budget launch of a Universal School Application on November 1, 2017.
As of May 4, 2018, ApplyHouston.org has helped parents submit over 26,679 applications to the partner schools.