Introduction to Unifying Enrollment

Posted September 13, 2016


As school options multiply, families across the country face a more complicated process to choose, apply, and enroll in public schools. Some schools may offer preferences for residents of certain neighborhoods, others may have special admissions requirements, and others may provide specialized programming – and they all may have different applications and deadlines. Navigating a variety of school types, processes and timelines can be an overwhelming task for families and a serious barrier to school choice. To simplify the process for families, several cities across the country are unifying their enrollment systems. Examples range from creating a common application amongst schools, to implementing a full “unified enrollment” system.

Common Application System

Cities with a common application system allow families to apply to multiple schools through a single submission of an application. All schools participating in the process share a common timeline and application. Sometimes, the common application system is for applying to one type of school, such as to the city’s charter schools. Other times, a common application will be for applying to different types of schools across the city, such as to the city’s district and charter schools. A common application does not always feed into a shared lottery, but creating a common application is often a first step toward a “unified enrollment” system.

Unified Enrollment System (UE)

Cities with a unified enrollment (UE) system use a transparent set of policies to allocate public school seats (both charter and district) to students through a single application and student assignment process (including a lottery when necessary) for all participating schools. Typically, in a UE system, applicants rank their preferred schools in order – naming which school is their 1st choice, their 2nd choice, and so on. The matching process, or lottery, typically provides each applicant with only one offer to the highest- ranked school on their list which has space for them. In addition to streamlining the process for families, here are a few additional reasons a city might adopt a UE system:

  • To match more students with preferred schools: When each school operates their own lotteries, some students end up with multiple offers while others have none. Under a UE system, students only receive one offer, thereby freeing up seats for more students.
  • To provide transparency to the public about how students are admitted into schools: A centralized UE system helps ensure that all students are admitted based on a fair set of rules and procedures. When schools run their own lotteries, some may be perceived – fairly or unfairly – as cherry-picking students.
  • To provide a one-stop- shop for families looking for information about schools: Another benefit of managing the process centrally is providing a resource for families who need help accessing information. Cities with a UE system typically provide a hotline, website, drop-in centers or all of the above, so that families can ask questions about schools and the application process. Without a centralized place for information and support, it can be more difficult for families to find the best school fit for their child.
  • To inform the public about patterns in school demand: The data from a centralized UE system gives stakeholders a more complete picture of families’ preferences. Since applicants rank their school choices, the application data allows for analysis of relative demand for different schools and school types. For a policymaker or school leader, this can be helpful information to shape decisions regarding school locations and programming.

For cities or organizations contemplating unifying their enrollment systems, there are four main workstreams to consider: 1) market design and governance; 2) systems and technology; 3) family and community outreach; and 4) assessment and evaluation. Resources on this site are tagged according to the workstream they fall into.

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