Building Better Schools

Choosing a school in Indianapolis is changing. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103.

When the charter school where Daphaina Davis-Coleman sent her two children abruptly closed last spring, she was suddenly faced with an urgent deadline. She had just two months to find a quality new school for her kids — but no idea where to begin.

Davis-Coleman attended a school fair. She asked friends for recommendations and visited five different charter and traditional public schools in hopes of finding a good fit for her family.

“I spent a lot of gas running to different schools and trying to see which would be better,” she said.

Just days before the school year started in August, Davis-Coleman applied to Cold Spring School, an environmental science magnet in Indianapolis Public Schools. But district staff told her they never received her application. Eventually, with classes about to begin, she chose a charter school recommended by her son’s football coach.

“It was just like a real long, irritating process,” she said.

It’s that same exhausting process, faced by thousands of Indianapolis parents every year, that the new Enroll Indy initiative aims to address.

Advocates for the unified enrollment system say it will make things easier by giving parents a single way to apply simultaneously to district and charter schools.

At a time when the changing school system has made choosing a school increasingly difficult, the goal is to help parents figure out which of their many school options will meet their children’s needs and demystify the process for enrolling.

But how effective the system will be — and who it will benefit from it — are questions that will be determined over the next year as school officials hammer out the details and try to convince schools to participate.

This much seems likely: Starting next year, choosing a school in Indianapolis could be a fundamentally different process. Though some parents may be focused right now on applying for September — early IPS magnet applications are due Friday — they may want to keep an eye on the changes that are brewing for next year.

Here’s what we know for now:

How does it work?

With Enroll Indy, instead of submitting applications to several different schools that could have different application deadlines or procedures, parents will be able to use a single application online or in person. Parents will rank the schools they want for their children. Then, once the application window closes, Enroll Indy will randomly assign children a lottery number that will determine whether they get their top-choice school or a school ranked farther down on their list. Every student will be placed in just one school, cutting down on the guess work for schools that will have a better idea early in the year about who they can expect to enroll.

Enroll Indy plans to offer three cycles for admission that mirror the timeline IPS is using for its magnet lottery this year, with lotteries in January, March and April, according to founder Caitlin Hannon.

For parents like Davis-Coleman, who are faced with a school decision later in the year, Enoll Indy would show them what schools still have seats available, sparing them from having to spend hours calling or visiting schools that don’t have space.

What’s the goal?

Unified enrollment is designed to level the playing field for parents and make it easier for them to find and apply to schools. The idea is that by making the application process and timeline clearer for parents, it will reduce the inequities that have long given savvy, affluent parents a better shot at good public schools.

Poor families are less likely to know about their school options — or how to access them, said Hannon.

“This is why choice was created, but we haven’t managed it very well,” Hannon said at a lunch to celebrate the launch of the Enroll Indy information site in November. “A lot of families, many of our neediest families, have fallen through the cracks. That changes now.”

Will Enroll Indy make admissions more fair?

Unified enrollment could dramatically change how families pick schools. But even with Enroll Indy, schools can still limit who gets in by giving preference to nearby families or siblings of current students.

That’s one reason why Bethany Gross, a researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, said she is reluctant to describe the system as inherently more “fair.”

“It doesn’t solve all your problems,” Gross said. “It can make things easier for families, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy.”

In Indiana, charter schools are required to treat nearly all children who apply equally when deciding admission, and they cannot prioritize students based on their family income, neighborhood or achievement.

But traditional public districts like IPS are allowed to use test scores or other criteria to select students. IPS has one school for gifted students and others that give priority to families who live in certain neighborhoods.

Enroll Indy won’t change that. Traditional districts and charter schools will still be able to set their admissions rules, and those rules will be built into the algorithm that determines where students win spots.

Will it change who gets in?

Even though unified enrollment systems don’t change the rules, they do make the application process more consistent, Gross said. Before unified enrollment came to Denver, for example, it was often completely unclear how students ended up in the schools they chose and it seemed likely that some parents had pulled strings to land seats. Gross said the new system virtually eliminated that problem.

“What you get in the end is some confidence that the rules and the procedures that have been laid out and agreed to are in fact followed consistently,” she said.

This could be particularly important for students with special needs and those who are still learning English. Those students have typically faced challenges in school applications, with some schools trying to steer the harder-to-educate kids away. That may be less likely to happen in a unified enrollment system since it creates a clear record of where those students initially matched. If schools turn those students away once they are matched, that could raise red flags for advocates.

Is Enroll Indy a sure thing?

Unified enrollment systems are an increasingly popular idea for cities with lots of charter schools, but getting schools on board is one of the biggest challenges. Some of the most elite charter schools in New Orleans still haven’t joined the city’s  OneApp, and in Detroit, a new application system was crippled by low participation from schools, largely because the city’s main district, which enrolls nearly half of its students, declined to participate last year.

There’s a lot of momentum behind Enroll Indy. It launched with $240,000 in support from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that has been instrumental in fostering collaboration between charter and traditional public schools. IPS recently voted for its schools to participate — including its coveted magnet schools.

Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office, which oversees most of the city’s charter schools, has strongly supported the plan. But for now, the mayor’s office is leaving it up to charter schools to decide whether to join the unified enrollment system.

There is still a possibility that low participation could unravel plans for Enroll Indy. The agreement with IPS stipulates that the district may drop out of the system if fewer than 80 percent of charter elementary schools or 80 percent of charter high schools join.

Why wouldn’t schools join?

While there is no organized public opposition from charter leaders, there are schools that have hesitated to join.

Among them is Herron High School, a classical liberal arts school on the near north side of the city that is consistently ranked one the best high schools in the state. Admission to Herron is open to anyone but winning a spot requires planning ahead: The school holds its application window during a single week in November — weeks before most other Indianapolis schools.

If Herron joined Enroll Indy, it would need to follow the nonprofit’s timeline, which would force the school to cede some of the control it has over enrollment.

Early enrollment windows like Herron’s are controversial because experts — and IPS admission data — say that low-income families tend to make school decisions later in the year so an early enrollment window is more likely to draw students with fewer challenges.

Herron’s head of school Janet McNeal said the school runs its admission cycle early in the year so that school staff can plan course offerings around the specific needs of future students. She said the school makes an effort to recruit at-risk children but a large share of the school’s students — 64 percent — are white and just 32 percent are poor enough to qualify for federal meal subsidies.

McNeal said there are “many advantages” to unified enrollment, but the school’s board hasn’t yet decided whether to participate next year.

Why would schools want to join?

With the current system, families can enroll in more than one school. Every year, traditional public and charter schools have students who withdraw days before school starts or simply don’t show up because they got off a waitlist or chose another school.

Enroll Indy will only give students admission to one participating school, making enrollment more predictable for administrators across the city and cutting down on the time they spend managing waitlists.

It also could help families learn about schools that aren’t well known, such as top-performing neighborhood schools in IPS or newly-opened charter schools since a key component of Enroll Indy is a guide with detailed information about schools.

Will it make schools more diverse?

As unified enrollment systems have rolled out across the country, researchers have paid close attention to the question of whether they change the demographics of the schools that participate.

The results suggest they can help diversify schools but are not a panacea. Gross notes that, in Denver, low-income families are still less likely to use the application than more affluent parents — and are more likely to attend neighborhood schools that rank lower on the district’s quality measures.

“The kids who aren’t making choices are more commonly finding themselves in the city’s lowest-performing schools,” Gross said.

But Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University and researcher with the Manhattan Institute, found that unified enrollment has diversified Denver’s charter schools by encouraging students with high needs — such as those learning English — to apply.

In his prior research, Winters found that charter schools have fewer students who are learning English or have special needs than traditional public schools because students with those challenges are less likely to enroll in the first place. But with unified enrollment, he said, children of color and students learning English were more likely to enroll in charter schools in kindergarten.

For some critics, the possibility that more kids — even high-needs students — will enroll in charter schools is precisely what’s worrying about a unified enrollment system. But Winters argues that parents who want other options should be able to access them easily.

“If this is opening a door for parents to enroll in schools that they want to enroll in but don’t understand how to enroll in now,” Winters said, “that’s a good thing.”

What’s next?

For now, Enroll Indy leaders are focused on creating a single enrollment system for IPS and the city’s charter schools. But there are hundreds of other schools that could eventually participate including private schools in the city and public schools in Indianapolis’ townships or suburbs.

In New Orleans, the OneApp system lets families apply for spots at private schools that accept tuition vouchers, adding many more schools to the mix.

Scott Bess, who leads the planned Purdue Polytechnic High School — a charter school that intends to participate in Enroll Indy — suggested that unified enrollment could reshape school admission across the county.

“If we can get this up and running here in Center Township at least, long term it’s something that then starts to look more countywide,” he said. “The more schools participate, the better the system will be.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.