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From Complicated to Compliant: How One District is Managing Choice Policy Changes with Ease

BY Keesa Sung

The Hernando County School District has taken a systematic approach to replace a decades-old process with a district-wide enrollment platform. Now, they’re delivering access equity and leveling the playing field for all families.

Public education leaders in Hernando County, Florida don’t shy away from a challenge. Deeply committed to serving their community, the public school district’s staff are the kind of educators that put student success at the heart of every decision they make.

When budgets were focused on improving student outcomes, for instance, the district dove right in, investing time and energy into graduation rates – which they’ve successfully raised. Just last year, they surpassed the state average and grew five percent, graduating 88% of students. (Equally impressive were the results at the leading Weeki Wachee High School, which reported a graduation rate of 97% – a nine percent gain over the prior year).1

And when a major policy change came down from the state capital, Hernando Schools leaders rolled up their sleeves.

Legislative changes

Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, Florida Statute Section 1002.31 directed each school district to develop a “controlled open enrollment plan.” Each district school board and charter school are mandated to allow a parent from any school district in the state to enroll his or her child in, and transport his or her child to, any public school that has not reached capacity. (The controlled open enrollment plan is in addition to the existing choice programs such as magnet schools, alternative schools, special programs, advanced placement, and dual enrollment.)

The new legislation further requires that district (and charter school) capacity determinations must be current and must be identified on their respective websites. Districts must provide preferential treatment in their controlled open enrollment processes to:

  • Dependent children of active duty military personnel whose move resulted from military orders
  • Children who have been relocated due to a foster care placement in a different school zone
  • Children who move due to a court-ordered change in custody due to separation or divorce, or the serious illness or death of a custodial parent
  • Students residing in the district2

With this new law, Hernando Schools immediately found themselves in front of a hurdle. Little investment had been made in the district’s enrollment infrastructure over the past few years, and data-driven decisions were lagging – which was a concern especially for the School Choice Department in light of the new law.

That’s where 18-year district veteran Angela M. Kennedy came in. A familiar face to Hernando Schools, Kennedy was asked to head the School Choice Department. She knew immediately that the expansion of open enrollment, when coupled with the increased popularity of the district’s three open choice magnet school programs, was going to require some level of change.

Inherited issues

Compounding the lack of transparency in Hernando’s enrollment data were complexities and inefficiencies in student data gathering. To gather student applications for the 500 spots available in their three magnet schools, Hernando Schools was using a part paper, part online process – which resulted in weeks of data entry and verification of more than 2,050 applications. Additionally, Kennedy reports, the team was using an antiquated, local server-based database which had been built by IT professionals who were long gone from the district. Managing priorities, offers, acceptances, waitlists and communications with families was naturally overtaxing Kennedy and the other staff. And with multiple data entry points (local database and Excel sheets), the dispersion of data meant gleaning data insights for district staff proved to be nearly impossible.

Kennedy knew they could do better for all stakeholders. And she knew taking the entire enrollment process online would be a start. For that, she turned to Application & Lottery Management from SchoolMint.

Finding clarity

Using SchoolMint’s solution, families apply and upload documents online (from a mobile phone or computer), making the student data instantly available to administrators. Manual data entry could be nearly eliminated. And after first deploying SchoolMint’s solution for their three magnet schools, the improved administrative efficiencies were tangible. “We have saved 400 hours of manpower in just communicating lottery results alone,” Kennedy says.  

The district also found the data clarity that they need to more easily comply with Florida’s new law. When Kennedy logs in to the Application & Lottery Management platform, regardless of the time of year, her current, real-time enrollment numbers are right there. “Our new processes allow us to easily report capacity determinations as well as transparency for the three preferential categories identified by the state and the additional categories identified by the board.”  

That’s primarily why, this year, the school board allocated the financing to expand the district’s use of SchoolMint’s Application & Lottery Management tool for all 22 schools. The efficacy of the pilot program drove the decision to expand, Kennedy says, admitting it’s easier to invest after you can see it work.

The transparency and ease-of-use has been a win for families too. Now, with just a mobile phone, families can create an account and apply to Hernando’s schools – in their native language. “The family experience was drastically improved with modernizing the process and bringing access online,” says Kennedy. Mobile access is more fair and equitable, and Kennedy confirms “we have reached more families than ever before.”

And with SchoolMint’s enrollment portal, families can log in for acceptance status update at any time. For Hernando Schools, the system is providing a source of truth for all enrollment information to better inform families of the details of their application status. “SchoolMint has improved community trust with an equitable and transparent process and our channels of communication with parents are more open than ever,” says Kennedy.

Navigating new challenges

With the Application & Lottery Management platform also comes powerful enrollment dashboards. And Kennedy is using real-time data and predictive enrollment reporting to advise the board and superintendent of enrollment trends and capacity. Those enrollment insights are proving to be critical – far beyond the district’s initial need.  

Since controlled open enrollment is now an integral part of the school landscape in Florida, many education leaders know this can translate to fluctuating enrollment trends. And that can impact the bottom line, especially when funding is already tight. While administrators can no longer assume past enrollment numbers would be guaranteed in future years, they can look to real-time data for guidance.  

Data-based findings are central to shaping sound policy, and investments in data systems or evaluations to inform future resource allocation decisions are very important even in tight budget times. In Hernando, this is shaping out to be true. Moving to an enrollment system with dashboards and data reports is enabling Hernando’s enrollment office to move forward with better data insights. And Kennedy is thrilled to see multiple benefits of their investment.

As she currently works to prepare all enrollment to be facilitated with SchoolMint for the 2019-2020 school year, Kennedy has tentatively set forth these goals:

  • Expand on the centralized process they established this year by including all district schools.
  • Establish a plan for training school principals and leaders. This will ensure that they are comfortable with going into the SchoolMint system to view dashboards of their enrollment trends, their school applications, and enrollment activity, and be able to plan and staff accordingly.

Kennedy feels confident in the district’s success so far and, most importantly, in their future position. “Hernando County’s school choice is well positioned now to serve families and optimize district resources,” she concludes.

Hernando County Schools serves the county of the same name in western Florida. Total student enrollment across 22 schools (3 magnets, 1 virtual and 18 traditional) exceeded 22,000 in 2019. The city of Brooksville is the location of the administrative offices.