Fall enrollment slows at Indianapolis charter and choice schools amid coronavirus

The door to the Enroll Indy office in Indianapolis Public Schools headquarters.
Applications for spots with Enroll Indy, which helps students apply to charter schools and magnets and preschools in Indianapolis Public Schools, are down significantly. (Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat)

Vanguard Collegiate was beginning to sign up new students for the upcoming academic year when school buildings across Indianapolis closed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. But in the seven weeks since, new enrollment at the west side campus has come to a standstill. 

“There’s so much uncertainty, people aren’t willing to make a change right now,” said Robert Marshall, executive director of the fledgling charter school, which opened two years ago and enrolls about 75 middle school students. 

Vanguard is not the only school facing slow enrollment for the fall. Throughout Indianapolis, where the school system allows parents to choose where their children attend, enrollment for the next academic year is in upheaval as families and schools grapple with the urgent crises caused by the coronavirus. 

There were nearly 15% fewer applications for spots through the city’s enrollment portal, Enroll Indy, compared to last year. Parents’ interest in Indianapolis Public Schools pre-kindergarten dipped significantly, with the number of applications falling by over 35%. In total, there were about 8,000 applications to enroll in new schools for the fall through Enroll Indy, which includes most city charter schools and Indianapolis Public Schools choice schools.

At a time when some families are struggling to pay rent or buy food due to the economic fallout from the virus, and officials are still uncertain whether schools will be able to operate normally in the fall, plans for next year are on the back burner. As a result, families eager for stability may avoid transferring even if they are dissatisfied. That means schools that were already struggling to survive could be further weakened by low enrollment. 

Although Vanguard needs to recruit more students in order to be financially sustainable, the school staff has been focused on beginning remote instruction and making sure families have devices and the internet, Marshall said. 

Vanguard is one of a small number of charter schools that doesn’t participate in Enroll Indy. This week, staff members are ramping up outreach to new families, but with social distancing still the norm, they cannot rely on the usual strategies that help them win over parents: outreach at large community events, door-to-door canvassing, and school tours. Instead, they must reach families virtually, through social media and online open houses. 

“The COVID-19 crisis absolutely eliminates the ground game, which is our ability to be able to be in neighborhoods, interact with families face-to-face, and make a genuine connection,” Marshall said. “Enrollment is one of the things that keeps me up at night as a school leader.”

Elementary and middle school students in Indianapolis Public Schools boundaries automatically have spots at neighborhood schools, but they must apply for seats at magnet and charter schools. High schoolers are encouraged to choose a school based on their interests. 

Enroll Indy does aggressive outreach to families with children in transitional grades who need new schools, such as pre-kindergarten, sixth- and eighth-grade students, said its executive director, Bill Murphy. Early analysis of the application data suggests that the system reached nearly all those students, but far fewer students made optional transfers even though families can apply online. 

Murphy is now focused on how the nonprofit can help families who choose schools later in the year, most of whom are low-income. Typically, they apply in person where they can get help from Enroll Indy staff, but that might not be possible this summer. 

“These are our families who tend to need the most support when figuring out where they want to send their child to school. And because it’s late in the process, they have the fewest options,” he said. “We are going to have to rethink how we work with families in an environment where so much of the in-person, interpersonal work that we are used to is limited.” 

Allegiant Preparatory Academy, a west side school that opened in 2018, has 65 students in kindergarten through third grade, and it is aiming to double in size next year. So far, about 26 new students have enrolled for next year. But Head of School Rick Anderson emphasized that it’s early in their enrollment cycle. Staff members don’t typically begin canvassing until May, and many of the school’s students enroll in July or even August, he said. 

Most of the students who have enrolled so far were referred by current families and child care centers Allegiant has relationships with, Anderson said. “I think we would probably be in a comparable place, regardless if the school is open or not,” he added.  

The challenges of recruiting students can be especially steep for new schools, which must build up enrollment from scratch. But the impact of closures has been muted for Ma’at Lands, the founder of Rooted School, who started recruiting over a year ago. 

So far the east side high school has enrolled over 50 students. The school, which will be located at Eastern Star Church, aims for a total of 75 freshmen its first year. 

Since campuses closed, Lands and her staff have continued to follow up with over 100 family contacts about enrolling for the fall. But when they reach them, they don’t begin with a pitch for the school — first they ask families how they are doing. 

“My assistant principal a couple of weeks ago was dropping off toilet paper to a family because that’s what they needed,” Lands said. “There’s a balance of making sure that they have what they need, but then also creating this sense of urgency because we want them to be placed at a school where they want their child to be.”

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