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Second graders work on literacy at Tindley Renaissance School last year.

2nd graders practice literacy skills.

Alan Petersime

A unified enrollment system for Indianapolis schools? Not so fast, IPS board members say on Facebook

More than a dozen Indianapolis politicians, educators, and civic leaders signed their names this week to a letter celebrating a new enrollment system uniting charter and district schools.

But instead of building enthusiasm for the system, the letter in the Indianapolis Star inspired a backlash on Facebook from Indianapolis Public Schools Board members. Board member Kelly Bentley and President Mary Ann Sullivan both said they were surprised to see the letter — and by its promise of a fall launch.

“I support the concept but not the rush to implement,” wrote Bentley. “This is something the Board hasn’t officially discussed or been briefed on.”

The board has supported a common enrollment system, even making it part of the 2015 strategic plan. But it has not yet agreed to participate in Enroll Indy, the nonprofit organization that developed a website for unified enrollment.

Enroll Indy was founded by former IPS board member Caitlin Hannon with funding from the Mind Trust, an organization that advocates for educational change in Indianapolis. The goal of Enroll Indy is to allow parents to apply for admission to IPS or charter schools through a single process. As it stands, Indianapolis charter schools each have their own application processes and deadlines for entering lotteries, and while IPS guarantees spots for students in neighborhood schools, the district holds a separate lottery for magnet schools in the fall.

Advocates say unified enrollment systems — which already exist in Denver and New Orleans, among other places — simplify the application process for families. But the systems can also make it easier for families to choose charter schools over their neighborhood schools. That’s a real danger for Indianapolis, which is already losing enrollment and funding to the publicly funded but privately managed schools.

After the kerfuffle erupted on Facebook, Mind Trust CEO David Harris emailed IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee to say that the reference to “this fall” had been removed from the letter at the urging of IPS staff, but an older version of the letter was mistakenly submitted to the Star. (Ferebee is on the board of Enroll Indy, along with two other IPS staffers.)

Meanwhile, Hannon said she doesn’t know yet which charter schools are on board with the enrollment system, either. While the group has been cultivating schools’ support for months, it started asking them to commit to participating only last month. She said she hopes to know which schools will use the application by the end of August. The Enroll Indy board will make the final decision when to launch the unified application. Hannon hopes to launch the informational site this fall even if districts and schools have not yet agreed to participate in the application.

Over the past several months, Hannon said Enroll Indy has been out to community events to connect with families and held meetings with over 40 community groups where parents might ask advice about school — from preschools to churches.

“[Families] are still going to ask their pastor, ‘Where should I send my daughter to kindergarten?’“ she said. “We want their pastor to know that Enroll Indy is there to help.”

But on Facebook, the IPS board members suggested that the group’s outreach had not given them sufficient confidence that unified enrollment is ready to launch.

Sullivan wrote that she is still committed to unified enrollment, but there is “more work to be done and public conversations to be had before flipping any switch to ‘go.’”

Bentley took a harder line in a subsequent comment.

“Less than a year of planning and very little in the way to community outreach,” she wrote. “There is no way this is ready for implementation this Fall.”

Clarification (July 6, 2016): This story has been updated to clarify the timeline for Enroll Indy’s website launch.