Education community raises concerns over universal enrollment plan at SRC meeting

     Superintendent William Hite (left) listens as community members discuss a proposed universal enrollment system during a School Reform Commission meeting (Photo courtesy of Bill Hangley Jr./Philadelphia Public School Notebook)

    Superintendent William Hite (left) listens as community members discuss a proposed universal enrollment system during a School Reform Commission meeting (Photo courtesy of Bill Hangley Jr./Philadelphia Public School Notebook)

    If supporters of universal enrollment were hoping for a ringing endorsement from parents and families on Monday night, they didn’t get it.

    Audience feedback during the School Reform Commission’s monthly strategy and planning meeting suggested that the Philadelphia education community is far from sold on the advantages of a new enrollment system that’s being developed by the members of the Great Schools Compact.

    The Compact, an education-reform effort that includes leaders from public schools, charters and Archdiocese schools, is assisted by the Philadelphia School Partnership, which raises money to add high-quality school options for students. 

    It was the public’s first chance to weigh in on the proposed system, which was first unveiled by PSP in a closed-door briefing at City Council last fall and which has been privately discussed in detail by a Compact-sponsored, PSP-managed working group for over a year.

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    Although all the feedback from participants who filled the auditorium on Monday has yet to be compiled, moderators from group discussions reported broad skepticism about key elements of the Compact-PSP plan.

    “There was a lot of trepidation about the single-best-offer system, whether you’d only have one choice, and what kind of stress that would mean for families,” said Sean Vereen, head of Steppingstone Scholars, who moderated one group.  

    “There was a lot of conversation about what’s wrong with the current system, but also a lot of conversation about what we can do to make the system we already have better.”

    It was a full house and a diverse group, with about 200 parents and students – District and charter alike – along with teachers, administrators, and other professionals. Many in the room agreed that the current tangle of application deadlines and charter procedures represents a real problem.

    But the group had many questions and concerns about governance, participation, privacy, accountability, and transparency.

    District and city officials say they remain uncertain about what kind of new system might be needed, if any.

    Superintendent William Hite said the District is “listening and learning” and has not endorsed any aspect of the Compact/PSP plan. “While we are not directing this effort, we are part of a team,” he told the audience.

    Later, School Reform Commissioner Feather Houstoun said the District and SRC are “far from taking any action.”

    The Compact-PSP plan, which is still being developed, proposes what’s known as a single-best-offer system. Students and families would submit about five school choices and rank them in order of preference. A computer would crunch student and school data and return a single offer for the student.

    All District schools would be required to use the system. Charter schools would probably be asked to choose to “opt in” or not. Whether or how Catholic schools could legally participate is not known, but the Compact-PSP plan includes them in the mix.

    PSP has suggested that the whole system be run by an outside contractor.

    At Monday’s meeting, District and city officials briefly discussed the Compact-PSP process before turning the meeting over to moderated working groups. The lively groups sat around circular tables and debated a range of questions.

    Afterward, moderators gave brief summaries of their group’s findings.

    Vereen’s group, like others, didn’t like the idea that the universal system wouldn’t necessarily include all charters. “There was certainly a concern – if the District went all in, the charters should go all in too,” Vereen said.

    Danielle Seward, a District staffer, moderated another group that reached the same conclusion. “Our consensus was that charter schools should be mandated to participate and that it not be a choice,” she said.

    Marc Mannella, founder of KIPP Philadelphia Charter Schools, said his group was open to including charters if they helped fund the system. “Everyone who participates should have some skin in the game,” he said.

    The single-best-offer aspect of the Compact-PSP plan was seen by many as one that reduced choice.   At one table, a student tossed five bracelets on the table, pointed to one and said, “What if you had five choices but you only got the one you wanted least?”

    David Lapp, staff attorney at the Education Law Center, said that at his table, the single-offer proposal “got a round of thumbs down.” 

    When it came to Catholic schools, Vereen reported “a lot of trepidation.”

    Lapp said his group tallied “one vote for Archdiocese schools and eight votes against.” A third said, “Public money should support public institutions.”

    Mannella said that most in his group had concerns but that some parents wanted “the whole buffet” — including Catholic schools.

    Other moderators said their groups questioned the motivation behind the effort and its importance.

    “Our group really wants more transparency about who’s at the table and who’s going to be at the table,” reported Julian Thompson, a District staffer.

    “Can we work though what our neighborhood schools really need, rather than working on a plan that’s already put forward?” asked Anissa Weinraub, a teacher and member of the activist Teacher Action Group.

    “The group felt that if the School District is going to have to spend a lot of money [on the system], perhaps that would be best spent somewhere else,” Mannella said to loud applause.

    Other attendees expressed concerns about issues of privacy, oversight, and accountability that would come with handing enrollment over to an outside contractor.

    Afterward, Hite agreed that there didn’t appear to be much support for the single-offer system. Nor did he hear a lot of support for a system that allows charters to opt out at will.

    But he did hear people asking for something simpler and more parent-friendly.

    “What I heard support for was some sort of single application, better information about selection, and multiple choices — not just one option,” as well as for the idea that charters should be required to take part, Hite said.

    Asked whether a new enrollment could be in place for the 2015-16 school year, Houstoun said it would depend on what the District tried to do.

    “Some of the suggestions that I heard were about universal information for every school, a common application, a simpler and more synchronized timetable,” Houstoun said. “Those are very different from creating some very complicated, statistical algorithm [system].”

    District officials say they hope the conversation continues. They say the public can expect more meetings on the subject but have none planned at the moment. Both Hite and Houstoun urged members of the charter and Catholic school community to support forums of their own.

    Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s top education deputy and chair of the Great Schools Compact, urged parents to keep an open mind about a proposal that is far from final.

    “We still have a way to go before we do this,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out what problems we’re trying to solve.”

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