In the coming weeks, about two dozen Enroll Indy staff members will fan out across Indianapolis, canvassing neighborhoods and setting up shop at community events with an ambitious goal: changing how families choose schools.
Enroll Indy is a nonprofit dedicated to giving parents a single place to learn about and apply for charter and district schools. When its new tool, OneMatch, launches Wednesday, families will be able to apply for more than 50 charter and Indianapolis Public School district schools through the same website or enrollment office.
The system, which is similar to common enrollment approaches being used in urban districts across the country, has lofty aims. It is supposed make school choice easier for families by creating a single application process and deadline. Advocates have suggested that making the application process more transparent could help schools become more diverse and give low-income students a better chance of admission to the city’s most sought-after programs, which have historically had earlier application deadlines.
At the same time, a common application process could make it easier for schools to plan enrollment and for school policymakers to roll out more of the types of schools that are most sought-after, advocates said.
But in the first year of OneMatch, one of the biggest challenges will be simply getting out the word to families that there’s a new way of applying for school, and a new application deadline, instead of the widely varying deadlines that schools have had in the past. There are three admissions rounds, but the group is pushing to get parents to apply by Jan. 15.
“The wonderful thing about all this is we will have constant data,” said Caitlin Hannon, founder of Enroll Indy. “We can look at it by zip codes and say, ‘We’ve got to go canvass in those neighborhoods that we’re not hearing from.’ ”
Parents applying through OneMatch will make a list of their top choice schools in order of preference. Once the application window closes, seats will be awarded by lottery, and students will get a single offer based on their preference and lottery results. Schools will no longer have waitlists. Instead, they will estimate how many admitted students will ultimately enroll.
Patrick Herrel, who heads IPS enrollment, told the school board that the approach helps schools and families plan for the next year.
“This allows us to say, ‘This is your offer. This is the best offer you are going to get. What do you think?’ ” he said.
The approach is becoming increasingly popular in cities where parents choose from many charter and traditional public school options. Denver, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., all use common enrollment websites. Enroll Indy was started with funding from the Mind Trust, which supports charter schools and district-charter partnerships, and common enrollment systems are often supported by advocates who want to bring order to school choice.
It can be politically complicated, however, to entice schools and districts to give up control over their admissions. A similar system in Detroit fell apart because more than three quarters of the city’s schools did not participate. And in Indianapolis there were murmurs of discontent last year when some IPS school board members thought OneMatch was being hastily rolled out. Those concerns dissipated once the launch date was pushed back, and the board voted to join OneMatch, as well as lease space to Enroll Indy in the district headquarters.
Although the system has been criticized by skeptics of school choice, there has not be an organized campaign to block OneMatch. Several charter schools and networks are not participating, but the vast majority of Indianapolis charter schools will use the system for admissions, as well as all of the IPS magnet and innovation schools. Parents will be able to register for neighborhood schools on the website, but they won’t go through the lottery since seats in those schools are guaranteed.
Earl Phalen, who founded Phalen Leadership Academies, said that the network chose not to use the system for its two Indianapolis charter schools because they want applicants to connect with the schools or talk with current families before applying. (The network also runs two IPS innovation schools which will use OneMatch.)
PLA might join OneMatch after it has been running for a few years and the drawbacks and benefits are clearer, said Phalen, but for now, the charter network’s admission process is working.
“We spent so much time figuring out how to build our own process … it doesn’t seem like the right move right away,” he said.
The first year will be something of a test for OneMatch, as school leaders, parents and policymakers watch to see how the system plays out. But ultimately, Hannon hopes that common enrollment will help reshape the school landscape in the city for years to come. When local leaders have more information on what schools are in especially high demand, Hannon said, they can plan schools that fill those gaps.
“Overtime, as people who create schools respond to the demand of families, we should start to have more people getting their first and second choices,” Hannon said.