How Moving Towards Common Enrollment Hurt My Schools, and Why I Want to Move Even Further

It was a hard board meeting, we are under enrolled, our test scores are mixed and somewhat flat, our special education costs are ballooning, non-essentials—like food at meetings–have been eliminated.   And I am hungry.

It’s a long meeting.   Our staff have been working their butts off, and our test scores are relatively good for the neighborhood, but not nearly good enough, and one school is really struggling.

My stomach is rumbling, my head is hurting, and I worry whether we are doing enough for our students, I know we aren’t, and we are in a budget crisis.

A significant factor in our budget crisis is declining enrollment and part of that is because we participated in the charter school common application, but I would do it again.

In a heartbeat.

Schools may lose as parents win and that is OK

The charter school common application was the Oakland charter sector’s first step towards common enrollment.  Almost all charters joined in an effort to let families apply to schools with one online application. In the old system families had to shlep to individual schools and fill out duplicative applications for each one.

This was easy for schools but not for families, and personally I think it created an atmosphere where some schools could engage in mischief, making school choice in some cases about schools choosing families rather than families choosing schools.

The new system is good for families, not so much for schools, at least not yet.  I think it could be, as schools and families start to match programmatically more.  But we aren’t there yet.  And my schools are feeling it.

All that said, I still support the common application, and want to push the idea further, and I think the average family does too.

Different Board Same Problems

I sit on the board of Education for Change (EFC), we are a network of Oakland public charter schools, serving roughly 3,000 Flatland kids.  Our schools are mostly conversions from the small schools movement.  We are neighborhood schools, and over-represent the more challenged students of Oakland.  We view ourselves as partners with the district in serving the students of Oakland, and we pushed the charter school common application.

But we are feeling it in the pocketbook, as are many charters.  We are community schools, roughly 90% of our students qualify for free/reduced lunch and 61.3% of our students are English learners, and 4% of our parents have college degrees.  For those who critique all charters for creaming students, you need to look elsewhere.

Throw any OUSD school above the 580 up there and argue that school is more “public” than our schools are.  Comparing us to OUSD as of the 2016 data 30.8% of students were English learners and 72.5% were low income in the district.

A new system and a different result

While our roster was full in the Summer, we started the year 200 students down.  That’s over 2 million dollars in lost revenue.  School sites faced cut, positions were not filled, non-essential expenditures (like food) were zeroed out, and everyone is feeling it.  Thankfully the hustling of staff has increased our enrollment, but we are still hurting.

When I was in NYC we did a common application, the same thing happened, parents gamed the system—they would apply to multiple schools and accept multiple offers, or hover on one school’s roster as they waited for a waitlist spot to open at their top choice.  So I had seen this pattern before.

I ain’t mad at them

You gotta hustle for yours, too often the schools are the choosers and they are gaming the parents, now the tables are turned, and we have to work harder to convince at least a subset of mobile parents to attend our schools.  And I guess that’s OK.  Though I wish more of our underserved parents were playing the game.

And when I look at our EFC schools, there is a correlation with “quality” and enrollment.  We are doubling down on the school that has struggled the most academically.  That school has also struggled with enrollment.

But if we can’t get our act together that school will likely be closed by the district in renewal or by our own board.  I have every hope for the school.  I volunteered there for a year and loved it, but saw the very real struggles.

And that is the accountability we signed up for.

Choosers and losers

There still are big issues in who is choosing and who is not, and the actual access to quality seats, for our most underserved families.  But the common application is a step forward for families.  They want a second step now and we should think hard about a third one.

The number one question that we heard from families during enrollment was why they have to fill out an application for the district schools and a separate one for the charters.  It’s the same information but they have to enter it into two systems.

The average Flatlands family, who may not be satisfied with their neighborhood school, just wants the best for their child and couldn’t care less if it’s a charter or a district school so long as it’s a good school and their child is treated fairly.

They want a broader common enrollment that unites the charter and district schools.  In fact in the district’s own survey 73% of respondents wanted one application.

I think we also need a third step though, where we provide preferences at high performing over-subscribed schools to underserved families.  This has started some in the charter sector (which I will write about), but we need a more systematic effort.

And believe me, I get it when people complain that making it easier for families makes it harder for schools and systems.  I am living that.  But why are those schools and systems even there if not to serve the families?

That’s a good question.

I hope we really listen to the families that need access to better schools in answering it.

What do you think?

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