A Better Enrollment Process, a Frustrating Enrollment Season, and the Deeper Problem it Signifies

This was a historic year for public school enrollment in Oakland, but not everyone is happy.  Parents in Oakland had better access and information about the public schools than ever.  Families also participated in the district and charter open enrollment at historic levels.  And kudos to the district enrollment office and Enroll Oakland, they pulled off the technical parts of handling tens of thousands of applications, getting into the community, troubleshooting with individual families, and running the processes relatively seamlessly.

It was the best administered, best informed, most inclusive open enrollment process Oakland has ever had.

So why are so many parents complaining?

The Quality Seats Problem

From the Crests of the Hills to the Lower Bottoms in the Flatlands and everywhere in between, families may have been happy about the range of school options they could easily apply to, but many were not happy about where they got in.

Families that moved from San Francisco to the Hills for specific neighborhood schools, families downtown that wanted Cleveland (the neighborhood school) and got a further away school, and families in the deep East or deep West, sitting deep on multiple waitlists but unlikely to get into preferred options.

Oakland may have a “too many schools problem” but at least in the eyes of many families, it does not have enough quality seats.

To be fair, part of this is the math, thousands of families are thrilled with their lottery results, but as that number of “quality seats” stagnates and more people apply for them, there will be more and more frustration.   The pie is the same size and more and more folks are able to crowd around the now online table.

A Couple of Caveats on “Quality”

Before we start barreling down the quality road we need to be clear about what it means and what it doesn’t, and whether the choice trends always indicate “quality.”  So I have a couple of warnings here.

One, I question whether perceived quality is really always quality.

I have long heard the complaints that a set of families just looks at greatschools.net and everyone applies to the same schools.  You may have schools skating by on their reputations that draw high achievers—and show relatively high scores, with the schools themselves adding relatively little.

And, two, there are schools really increasing learning but without the established reputation.  And schools that are doing all the right things and showing positive trends but not yet established.  So we do need better data, about how schools are really doing, and doing with subgroups.

More Important than Better Information is Better Access

We need more quality seats.  Choice without access is a cruel joke, and dangling a small set of shiny toys in front of an ever larger group of increasingly frustrated parents, who never get to touch them, will lead to revolt.

I do have some suggestions on increasing quality seats in Oakland, and the District has made some small strides.

But honestly, when I look at the numbers.  14% of Black district elementary school students can read at grade level, and its 15% in the charters.  And also the pace of progress and lack of universal urgency, while we squabble about so many other adult issues.

Maybe we are better off with a damn revolution.

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What do you think?

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