Eleven-year-old Roxanna Vasquez huddled with her family around a computer during the online student registration kickoff event Monday at the Shelby County Schools Board of Education building in Memphis.
Within 30 minutes, Roxanna was officially registered to attend Colonial Middle School this fall — no paperwork and a reasonable wait time.
An easier, more efficient registration process is the goal as Tennessee’s largest public school district officially moved to all-online registration beginning this week. (See Chalkbeat’s preview of the change, including the challenge of the “digital divide” in Memphis.)
In previous years, student registration has been hampered by long lines and excessive paperwork that made it difficult for working parents to sign up their children for the new school year.
District officials hope the new system not only assists families, but provides administrators with more accurate and timely enrollment estimates, which are critical in planning and staffing schools for the new school year, which begins Aug. 10. In past years, registration day was held just a week before the first day of school, leaving administrators to scramble to manage those important details. In addition, many unregistered students would show up days and even weeks late to school, impacting school operations and funding.
Monday’s kickoff featured rows of computers, support personnel and translators at five locations in a campaign that will continue through Aug. 4.
While feedback was generally positive, there were some hiccups, including an invitation by one non-school group to help Hispanic families with the registration process — for a fee of up to $25. District officials immediately sent out warnings to ignore the social media invitation from a group called Villaseñor Taxes.
“We’re hearing rumors of organizations charging fees to help complete online registration. DON’T DO IT! We have staff on-hand to assist you!”
— Shelby Co. Schools (@SCSK12Unified) July 13, 2015
“I saw the ad for charging for help on Facebook,” said Plutarco Vasquez, Roxanna’s father, who is originally from Mexico and speaks in broken English. “It’s sad. Some people will pay that because they don’t know better. What the schools are doing today, all of this is free.”
A steady stream of parents kept two employees busy from the district’s English as a Second Language (ESL) department at the central office registration site. Additionally, the district’s location at 920 N. Highland St. was designated specifically for English language assistance.
As of Monday evening, more than 20,000 students — almost one-fifth of the district’s expected total enrollment — had completed or started the online registration process, said district spokesman Christian Ross.
The new process is better for parents who have to work and can’t take off for registration day, said Samantha Parks, who signed up her 9-year-old daughter for Getwell Elementary School. “It just makes more sense to do this from home or a library, wherever you can,” she said.
Even so, Parks wasn’t able to register her other two children because their student codes, known as “snapcodes,” were not showing up in the computer system. She was told that redoing their paperwork as if they were new students would address the problem.
A new process doesn’t come without challenges, including the distribution of snapcodes to parents. About 110,000 codes were mailed to parents, which took longer than originally expected, Ross said.
“We’ve had a lot of parents calling to ask where their snapcodes are,” Ross said. “Some have been able to receive them by email, and others are coming up to the district offices. We’re asking parents to be patient with us and recognize it’s not going as fast as we would want.”
Ross emphasized that the window for online registration is three weeks, so there is still sufficient time to work out the kinks.
“This has turned into positive for our school staff and parents, as it’s taken off a lot of stress that comes with thousands of parents showing up on one day to register their kids,” Ross said. “This gives more time for schools to have their doors ready to open on Aug. 10th.”
In addition to registration assistance, the kickoff event featured games for the kids, free Chick-fil-A dinners and a showcase of other district services. Children who came with their parents were able to receive a free physical, shoot basketball goals to win prizes, and learn about healthy eating from the district’s health services.
“This kind of thing is good for the kids to be a part of,” Parks said. “It makes what can be a stressful thing way more doable.”