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Unified enrollment plan heads for a vote, but some board members remain skeptical

Mike Szymanski | May 4, 2017

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unified enrollment plan that is supposed to make it easier for parents to apply to multiple magnet and pilot programs is scheduled for a vote next Tuesday, but some LA Unified school board members aren’t convinced it’s ready to be funded.

During a presentation at the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday afternoon, board members expressed concerns about the plan‘s cost of $24 million that’s expected to come out of school bond money. They also wanted more details before they are asked to fund the project.

And although there was a discussion about including independent charter schools in the enrollment system during a previous presentation, that option seems to be off the table.

Since the approval of her strategic plan last year, Superintendent Michelle King has made it clear that the unified enrollment idea is one of her ways to keep students in district schools and stop them from choosing independent charter schools. School board members agreed with her goal to push this list of traditional school options so the district can compete with the marketing campaigns of charter schools.

“This is about retaining and accelerating enrollment,” said King, who heard parents repeatedly bring up the idea of unified enrollment during her “listen and learn” tour of the schools. “It is one of the pieces we are using to deal with declining enrollment and keep students in the district.”

It is also a way for parents to know what is available in the district schools and avoid having to fill out multiple applications and bring them to the schools. Staff members making the presentation talked about parents waiting outside magnet schools at 4 a.m. to get on waiting lists and others taking time off work to hand deliver the necessary paperwork. The new system is expected to go live this fall and show what’s available, as well as help families prioritize what programs are important to them.

Steve Zimmer is concerned about “overbooking” schools.

For example, a family could rank priorities that they are looking for in a school: does the school have a basketball team, is it close to home, does it serve dinners, does it have a strong math program, is it a pilot program with computer technology, does it have a dual-language program, is there a magnet program focusing on engineering? Then, because the computer program would use the same application for multiple schools, parents could choose from the options based on where their children are accepted, according to the presentation.

“It will help families understand what is available and they will be able to apply faster and earlier in the school year,” King explained. “If we’re not visible, we’re going to lose more students than we are already losing and that’s money. People don’t know what is in their own neighborhoods.”

Board member George McKenna, who is the chairman of the Committee of the Whole, expressed skepticism about the whole plan.

“I’m concerned as to the intended outcome,” McKenna said. “Is it to help them stay in LA Unified or to find other options to leave LA Unified?”

McKenna noted that there was a time when families sent their children on buses for more than an hour to go to school. “They never visited the school, they never went to a PTA meeting there, but they just knew it was in the Valley, and so they were happy that their children were safer there,” McKenna said. “We still have schools that people want to avoid.”

Board member Mónica Ratliff noted that some community members protested the use of bond money for the program. “I would like to see more in terms of a work plan and the scope of it, it’s a little thin,” Ratliff said looking at the staff presentation. “Five pages isn’t enough to spend $24 million.”

School board President Steve Zimmer said he wanted to know what safeguards there were to prevent certain schools from being overwhelmed with applicants.

“I am concerned with an overbooking situation,” Zimmer said. “I want to make sure that what we are investing in is wise. In other districts, what evidence do we have that equity and access has been addressed? What evidence from other districts show that it will improve enrollment?”

The school board is scheduled to address the concerns and hear more details from staff at next Tuesday’s school board meeting. At the meeting, the board is being asked to approve $1 million for a school search software tool for the program. The staff is in the process of identifying a vendor to create the unified enrollment system that is supposed to launch by fall 2017. Already, 155,000 families are enrolled in a test of the program, and more assistance for parents to learn the system is expected.

But, not even all of the widely sought-after district programs will be listed immediately in the unified enrollment program. The 54 affiliated charter schools, which are under the school district’s control, won’t be added to the program until its third phase in 2019-20 due to the complex roll-out and various application deadlines, the staff said.

The 12 application schools and 120 Schools for Advanced Studies also won’t be in the options when the program is set to go live this fall but will appear the following fall, said George Bartleson, executive director of Program and Policy Development.

“We want families to have equity and know what’s available,” Bartleson said. “Some do not know there’s a school just down the road with good programs.”

Listening to the presentation in the audience, Seth Litt, the CEO of Parent Revolution, said, “This is an important first step toward equity for different communities, but we will see.”

Zimmer noted that protecting the public schools and promoting their good programs are more important than ever. He noted, “There are still some dangerous, dangerous signs to the district with the impact of the Trump budget and we need to continue to protect neighborhood schools.”

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