Family Engagement in Washington DC’s School Choice System
We sat down with Aryan Bocquet, the founding Parent Engagement Manager for My School DC, to pick her brain about best practices in parent outreach. My School DC is the common application and lottery for Washington, DC’s public school options. More than 200 district and charter schools are available to families through the system. Aryan leads all of the family engagement work for My School DC, including community and government partnerships, advertising, events, and grassroots outreach.
For cities just beginning to plan for a unified enrollment system, how would you recommend getting started in terms of community outreach? What is the first thing to think about?
The first thing I’d recommend is thinking through the application process and what barriers might be present for families, and address them up front. Since we do not have a paper application, we have to make sure our application is still accessible for families with low computer literacy, and those without computers or Internet access. Our application can be completed on a smartphone, and our parent hotline has been crucial. Parents can call the My School DC Hotline and complete the application process over the phone. Schools that participate in My School DC also commit to making a computer publicly available for families who walk in with the intent to apply as a condition of participating in the common lottery. We also train staff who work at the city’s libraries – which have computers publicly accessible for residents – on the application process. Lastly, we have bilingual staff, translated materials, and telephonic interpretation in any language to support our language minority communities. We try to make sure we’re meeting the range of families’ needs.
What else should be taken into consideration when planning for a unified enrollment system?
I’d also recommend getting to know your city. Identify the areas in which different populations live who may experience barriers to applying. In DC, we have 8 wards. Demographically, we know that our language minority communities tend to live in Wards 1 and 4, and families with the largest numbers of school-aged kids live in Wards 7 and 8. Based on our city’s technology assessment, we also know that the wards with the deepest technological divides are Wards 7 and 8 and parts of Ward 5. We recognize what some of the barriers to applying – language, technology, limited access to resources – and we know where to focus our outreach strategies.
Lastly, look to see which potential partners work with those populations – community-based organizations, local government agencies, daycares, etc. – and start to develop relationships with them. For example, we work closely with the DC Public Library. The libraries make computers publicly available to families. My School DC trains librarians so they can answer basic questions about the application process and lottery, and equips them with copies of our printed school directory for parents. We also partner with early childhood organizations like CentroNia that serve children ages 3 months to 5 years to inform families with children age-eligible for PK of their public school options and how to apply. We train their staff, hold parent workshops, and help families through the application process.
What have been the most effective techniques or strategies?
Our principal goal is to simplify the application process for families. Keeping that goal in mind, and partnered with the core understanding that we need to meet families where they are, we implement a whole range of strategies to reach families across the city. Two of the most successful ones to date include a large “boots on the ground” field campaign in targeted neighborhoods and EdFEST – the District’s citywide school fair.
Can you explain those strategies in more detail?
Our field campaign uses “commit cards” which are a way of getting families to commit to learning more about the common application and lottery process. It’s a strategy borrowed from ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) campaigns during elections. Families have a personal interaction with a canvasser, provide their contact info on the commit cards, and we use that to follow up by phone and, if they prefer, in-person to make sure they have the information needed to move forward with the application process, and remind them to apply. The more “touches” we have with a family, the more likely that family is to submit an application.
EdFEST – our annual public school fair – is a great way for families to learn about the 200+ participating schools in our system, particularly families who might not be able to attend multiple open houses during the year. It is a free event that takes place prior to the date the lottery application opens, so that families can begin thinking about their school selections. We partner with the Department of Health to administer immunizations at the fair, as well as other education-related agencies and organizations, to provide a holistic experience for youth and their families. Last year we had about 4800 participants at EdFEST.
How do you know if the strategies are working?
After three years, we’ve been able to see which strategies yield the highest return in terms of applications. But we are constantly testing, evaluating, and making tweaks to our strategies to improve. For example, we initially did more door-knocking in years 1 and 2 to get the word out, but we have since found that canvassing with commit cards at high-traffic locations, such as metro stops, grocery stores, and service centers, are a stronger entry point to the process and yield more applications. So we’ve shifted to do more of that type of outreach.
What’s been most surprising?
We’ve been pleased to see that the online-only application is not a significant barrier. There’s parity with public school enrollment and applications received – in other words, we get the proportion of applications from a neighborhood that you’d expect given the proportion of public school children living there.
We’ve also seen that digital advertising can be surprisingly effective. For example, we’ve found that Facebook advertising targeting Spanish speakers has exceeded the industry click-through rate standard and has generated more clicks to our site and our application, which is also translated fully into Spanish. People are engaging more with Facebook than we expected, so we’ll increase the budget for digital advertising and thinking through how to more effectively promote calls to action.
Generally speaking, it’s really important to measure your efforts and analyze the data to see what you can learn and how you can course correct.
Is there anything you wish you’d known when you first started?
Our first year, things moved so fast, we didn’t have enough time for meaningful relationship-building with partners. And it is so critical to build trust. Initially we had an assumption that folks would buy into the program because it is the only way to apply to 200+ public schools of choice, but there was some resistance. The resistance was not directed so much to our program specifically but it would sometimes get conflated with other issues surrounding school choice. To get past that we had to be relentless – willing to go back to the same partners again and again, meet them where they’re at, ask how we can be helpful, and see how our mission aligned with theirs to find some way to work together.
I also wish I had known what a major resource the hotline was going to be. We hadn’t sufficiently prepared for the volume of calls received the first year. I recommend thinking through staffing and programming before going live and really plotting out what to expect in terms of call volume. The hotline is one of our most highly utilized parent-facing resources, second only to MySchoolDC.org.
Thanks so much for your time, Aryan! Where can people find out more about your outreach resources if they’re interested?
We have flyers and worksheets for families available here: http://www.myschooldc.org/resources/resources-families-and-schools/.
And we also have videos explaining the application process and the lottery specifically here: http://www.myschooldc.org/resources/my-school-dc-videos/
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- Get to know your city. Map out the different locations of your populations and identify potential barriers different groups of families may face (e.g. where do families experiencing a digital divide live?).
- Seek out partners who work with targeted populations and establish relationships with these groups (e.g. which government agencies serve your target populations?)
- Create, assess and iterate on strategies for reaching out to families (e.g. canvass at subway stops, hold school fairs, invest in digital marketing and then see which tactics are most effective in different communities and course correct).
- Develop a variety of support systems to guide families through the application process (e.g. build a hotline with trained staff who can assist families in completing the application over the phone).