Future of Schools

One system to apply for IPS and charter schools? Nearly 4,000 students gave it a shot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Princess Glenn hopes to enroll her son at Super School 19.

A new website designed to help families across Indianapolis apply for schools drew applications from 3,862 students in the first round.

The applications to OneMatch slightly exceeded the goal of 3,500, marking the successful launch of a project that has been in planning for more than two years. The deadline was Tuesday for the first application window using the new system.

The OneMatch application, which is run by the nonprofit Enroll Indy, aims to make it easier for families to choose and apply for schools in a city where there is a growing selection of options for students. It allows families to apply for more than 50 charter and Indianapolis Public School district schools through the same website or enrollment office.

Applicants rank their top choice schools, and an algorithm then matches students with schools. This round, families applied to an average of just under three schools per child for a total of 10,518 applications.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook yesterday, and we had parents in our office all day,” Enroll Indy founder Caitlin Hannon wrote in an email the day after applications were due.

In the nine weeks leading up to the first application deadline, staff from Enroll Indy fanned out across the city to tell parents about the process. Since the application opened Nov. 15, they reached about 8,500 families through canvassing and phone banks, and held about 29 intake sessions in partnership with schools and community groups, according to Hannon.

It was during one of those intake sessions that Princess Glenn met staff from Enroll Indy. A parent with two children in IPS, Glenn was a panelist at a meeting about choosing schools on Wednesday organized by UNCF and the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports charter schools and helped fund Enroll Indy.

When Enroll Indy visited her school, Glenn applied for new schools for two of her children. For her daughter, who is in 3rd grade, she chose a charter school. And for her son, who is in 6th grade, she chose a district magnet with a focus on physical activity.

“My son is one of those kids that, he likes to stay busy,” she said. “For something like that to be available for our kids nowadays, I just think that it’s great.”

Families who applied through OneMatch will receive a single school offer on Feb. 15. Enroll Indy will run two additional application windows in the coming months for families who did not meet the first deadline or would like to reapply.

Common enrollment systems, which allow students to apply for district and charter schools in a single location, have been embraced in several cities in recent years, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. But their success hinges on collaboration between district and charter school leaders. Efforts to create similar systems have stalled in cities such as Detroit and Boston.

Enroll Indy staff members say the aim is to help students who are about to start elementary, middle or high school find the right fit. But one fear among critics of common enrollment systems is that they will make it easier for charter schools to woo parents like Glenn away from traditional public schools. On the other hand, charter schools also fear losing control over the admissions process.

Although OneMatch has gotten some pushback from Indianapolis parents and community members, the effort encountered relatively little public opposition from leaders. Most Indianapolis charter schools are participating, and the IPS school board not only voted to join OneMatch, but also allowed Enroll Indy to lease space in the central office for an enrollment center.

Parents in Indianapolis now face a panoply of school choices. Nearly 13,000 students who live in IPS boundaries attend charter schools, including innovation schools that are overseen by the district. At the same time, the city’s largest district has also expanded choices by creating new magnet schools, and next year, all high school students will choose specialized programs with focus areas such as the arts or information technology.

At the community event Wednesday, Patrick Herrel, who heads enrollment for the district, said that Enroll Indy is the latest effort to make applying for schools easier for Indianapolis families. As recently as four years ago, families who wanted to apply for magnet schools had to turn in paper applications at the district office.

“As those number of choices have grown, we have had to become more sophisticated in our way of helping parents access those choices,” he said. “I think Enroll Indy really represents the next step.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.