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With new website, Indianapolis inches toward a single application for charter and district schools

Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.
Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.
Alan Petersime

Admissions for Indianapolis Public Schools and the city’s vast array of charter schools are inching toward a single application process.

By late November, a new nonprofit organization, Enroll Indy, will open a school-information center within the IPS central office and unveil a website with details on school options, according to its founder Caitlin Hannon.

The information center will not be officially involved in enrollment this year. Instead, staffers will focus on helping parents navigate the application process and the new website. The site will include basic information like a school’s test scores and demographics and details that parents can use to find schools that match their preferences — from instrumental music to the Montessori philosophy.

“We are not there to tell families, ‘This school is better than that school,’” Hannon said. “What we believe is that if parents are empowered with the information, they will find a school that fits.”

But Enroll Indy has bigger ambitions. Its goal is to allow Indianapolis families to apply for traditional public schools and charter schools through its website — something that could happen as soon as next fall, Hannon said, if schools agree to participate.

The project mirrors similar efforts across the country in cities where charter schools are plentiful, including New Orleans, Denver, and Washington, D.C. Charter school advocates tend to support the universal enrollment systems since they can reduce the complexity of choosing and applying to schools. (Hannon left the IPS board last year to craft a unified enrollment system with funding from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that supports school reform.)

In Indianapolis, where about 14,000 students attend charter schools, interested families now must contact each charter school directly to enroll. Because schools have different application processes, parents can spend hours navigating a confusing array of schools.

The prospect of a unified system has also won strong support from some local charter leaders and the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, which oversees most of the charter schools in the city.

There has been little organized opposition to creating a unified enrollment system. But charter-school critics argue that the system could funnel students away from traditional public schools. Some charter schools also are reluctant to participate because the new system would mean they have less control over admission to their schools.

There is no guarantee that Enroll Indy’s information center and website will morph into a unified admissions system. The IPS board has long supported a unified system but has not voted on whether to participate, though it tacitly endorsed the nonprofit last month by agreeing to lease it space in the central office.

The effort also hit a roadblock this summer. After advocates sent a letter to the Indianapolis Star in support of the plan that mentioned a fall 2016 launch, some IPS board members called for a slower rollout of the enrollment system.

But many charter leaders are already in decision-making mode. Ahmed Young, who directs the mayor’s education innovation office, said his office is “strongly encouraging” school leaders to join on.

Kevin Kubacki, who leads a network of charter schools that includes Enlace and Kindezi academies, said that both schools will participate, in part because it will make the application process simpler for families.

“School choice is big in Indiana,” Kubacki said. “But not every parent is really well-versed in their different options and what school choice actually means.”

“Having all the schools in one place for parents to compare and see side-by-side … makes it a lot easier for them,” he said.

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