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With new website, Indianapolis inches toward a single application for charter and district schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.

Admissions for Indianapolis Public Schools and the city’s vast array of charter schools are inching toward a single application process.

By late November, a new nonprofit organization, Enroll Indy, will open a school-information center within the IPS central office and unveil a website with details on school options, according to its founder Caitlin Hannon.

The information center will not be officially involved in enrollment this year. Instead, staffers will focus on helping parents navigate the application process and the new website. The site will include basic information like a school’s test scores and demographics and details that parents can use to find schools that match their preferences — from instrumental music to the Montessori philosophy.

“We are not there to tell families, ‘This school is better than that school,’” Hannon said. “What we believe is that if parents are empowered with the information, they will find a school that fits.”

But Enroll Indy has bigger ambitions. Its goal is to allow Indianapolis families to apply for traditional public schools and charter schools through its website — something that could happen as soon as next fall, Hannon said, if schools agree to participate.

The project mirrors similar efforts across the country in cities where charter schools are plentiful, including New Orleans, Denver, and Washington, D.C. Charter school advocates tend to support the universal enrollment systems since they can reduce the complexity of choosing and applying to schools. (Hannon left the IPS board last year to craft a unified enrollment system with funding from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that supports school reform.)

In Indianapolis, where about 14,000 students attend charter schools, interested families now must contact each charter school directly to enroll. Because schools have different application processes, parents can spend hours navigating a confusing array of schools.

The prospect of a unified system has also won strong support from some local charter leaders and the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, which oversees most of the charter schools in the city.

There has been little organized opposition to creating a unified enrollment system. But charter-school critics argue that the system could funnel students away from traditional public schools. Some charter schools also are reluctant to participate because the new system would mean they have less control over admission to their schools.

There is no guarantee that Enroll Indy’s information center and website will morph into a unified admissions system. The IPS board has long supported a unified system but has not voted on whether to participate, though it tacitly endorsed the nonprofit last month by agreeing to lease it space in the central office.

The effort also hit a roadblock this summer. After advocates sent a letter to the Indianapolis Star in support of the plan that mentioned a fall 2016 launch, some IPS board members called for a slower rollout of the enrollment system.

But many charter leaders are already in decision-making mode. Ahmed Young, who directs the mayor’s education innovation office, said his office is “strongly encouraging” school leaders to join on.

Kevin Kubacki, who leads a network of charter schools that includes Enlace and Kindezi academies, said that both schools will participate, in part because it will make the application process simpler for families.

“School choice is big in Indiana,” Kubacki said. “But not every parent is really well-versed in their different options and what school choice actually means.”

“Having all the schools in one place for parents to compare and see side-by-side … makes it a lot easier for them,” he said.

diversity plan

Advocates call on Chancellor Fariña to take ‘morally necessary’ steps to end school segregation

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall in District 3 in 2015. She is seated next to Superintendent Ilene Altschul, second from right.

The deadline is fast approaching for New York City officials to release their “bigger vision” plan to promote school diversity, and advocates are once again demanding more input on the final proposal.

In a draft letter obtained by Chalkbeat, a self-described group of “parents, students, educators, advocates and elected officials” pushes the education department to declare integration a priority, include the community in any plans that will be put forward, and to adopt “systemic” approaches to desegregate city schools.

“We do not pretend that it will be easy,” states the letter, which is addressed to Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “But we insist that it is logistically possible, educationally sound, and morally necessary.”

In April, Councilman Brad Lander presented a similar letter to members of the “New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation,” or ASID — a relatively new group of desegregation advocates from across the city.

Councilman Lander’s office declined to comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the education department have said they will release a plan to address school segregation by June. The state has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, driven in large part by New York City, and advocates have been pushing for years for a large-scale remedy.

In 2015, advocates sent a similar letter to the department that included some of the same requests, including the adoption of a formal policy statement making integration a priority. When asked about that in an August 2016 interview, Fariña told Chalkbeat: “Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.”

A new element of the advocate’s proposal calls for integration efforts to start in pre-K. Parents can apply to any of the city’s universal pre-K sites, but pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens, according to a recent report. The letter also calls for the education department to set “measureable goals” towards desegregation.

In recent years, the education department has moved forward with some plans to increase diversity in schools, such as allowing schools to set aside a certain percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria. But advocates have criticized that approach as piecemeal and are eagerly awaiting the city’s broader diversity plan.

See full letter below:

Revised Letter to DOE 5 5 17 (Text)

By the numbers

NYC middle schools, pre-Ks meet diversity targets — and more high schools join initiative to spur integration

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

New York City middle schools participating in an admissions program designed to encourage integration met their targets in making offers to incoming students, Chalkbeat has learned.

Additionally, two more high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions pilot, bringing the total to 21 participating schools — still a tiny fraction of the roughly 1,800 schools across the city.

This is the third school year that principals could apply to the program, which allows schools to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a measure of poverty. In some schools, only a sliver of seats are set aside; at others, it’s more than half.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have come under increasing pressure to spur integration in city schools, which are some of the most segregated in the country. While the education department has been eager to tout the Diversity in Admissions program, many activists have criticized the approach as piecemeal, calling instead for wider-scale approaches. The city has promised a broader plan by June, and the chancellor recently hinted that changes to high school admissions could be a part of the proposal.

The four middle schools in the diversity program all met — or surpassed — their set-aside targets in making offers to incoming students, according to data provided by the education department. However, it’s not guaranteed that all students who are offered admission will actually enroll.

Two of the participating middle schools are in Brooklyn’s District 15, where parents and Councilman Brad Lander have called for enrollment changes. At M.S. 839, 42 percent of offers went to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At the Math & Science Exploratory School, 30 percent of offers did.

Two high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions program for the 2017-18 enrollment cycle: Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design in Brooklyn, and Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens. Both will set aside 63 percent of seats for students who qualify for free lunch — a higher threshold of need. Currently, 83 percent of students at Williamsburg High School qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (rates for only free lunch were not immediately available). Only about 50 percent of students at Academy for Careers in Television and Film qualify for free lunch, according to Principal Edgar Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said he has seen the school’s population slowly change since it opened almost a decade ago. Television and Film was a Title I school when it launched, meaning enough students were poor to qualify for additional federal funding. The school has since lost that status, and Rodriguez said joining the Diversity in Admission pilot will help preserve economic diversity.

“We work very hard, in the four years we have students with us, to provide them a space that gives them a sense of the real world,” he said. “The school is already diverse as it is, and I think ensuring the diversity continues, and that it’s sustained over time and deepened, just enhances that experience overall.”

The education department also shared offer information for nine pre-K sites in the Diversity in Admissions program.

Most pre-Ks in the diversity program met their offer targets, except for the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. The school aimed to make 10 percent of offers to students who have incarcerated parents, but the school wasn’t able to make any offers based on the students who applied and priority status given to other students.

A recent report by The Century Foundation found that the city’s pre-Ks are more segregated than kindergarten classrooms. Testifying recently at a state budget hearing, Fariña seemed to chalk that up to parent choice.

“I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying,” she said. “This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K.”