stories

One Application to Unite Them All – And Break Down Access Barriers

BY Autumn Miller

In this midwest town, a handful of schools are stabilizing their enrollment numbers and making access to school choice more equitable – all thanks to a dedicated group of advocates.

This story begins in Kansas City, Missouri with a group of parents. All had school-aged children, all were trying to figure out what schools they should send their children to – and all seriously struggled. When it came to navigating school choice, the availability of school information was less than ideal. Wanting to improve the process not just for them but for the entire community, the nonprofit Show Me KC Schools was formed. Today, the organization aims to provide all Kansas City families unbiased information and access to the area’s 90+ K-12 district, charter, and private schools.

Jump ahead to any section:

> The Challenge: Too Many Applications for Families to Navigate
> Exploring Options: Unifying Enrollment? One Timeline? Or One Application?
> Working Through Concerns
> Evidence Access Has Improved
> Strategies for Success
> Making Schools More Sustainable

The Challenge: Too Many Applications for Families to Navigate

One of the biggest stumbling blocks families faced, Show Me KC Schools leaders felt, was school applications and how complicated they were. “Take kindergarten, for example,” explains Tricia Johnson, Executive Director of Show Me KC Schools. “The average number of school choices the family of a kindergartener has is 25. For those 25 schools, there were approximately 23 different application processes.” Almost every school had a unique application start date and cut-off date, different requirements for their applications, and different procedures (some were online and some on paper).

Figuring multiple applications out, Show Me KC Schools confirmed through a research study, took time and resources, which not all families have. “As a family, you had to be extremely savvy, knowledgeable, and have a lot of agency to navigate those waters,” says Johnson. “We surveyed 500 families about their experience navigating school options in Kansas City, and one of the moms summed it up perfectly, saying ‘sometimes it feels like you need a social worker to help you.’ There were equity barriers.”

Leslie Kohlmeyer, the organization’s Director of Programs, adds many families weren’t participating in choice because the cut off dates were so complicated. “So many times I heard a family wanted a particular school but they missed that deadline and never applied.”

Exploring Options: Unifying Enrollment? One Timeline? Or One Application?

To improve the process, Show Me KC Schools considered all options. They explored the simplest solution: getting multiple schools in the city to simply commit to one common, shared timeline. They looked into other enrollment processes that would unite the entire school landscape, but those were more complex. Ultimately, they decided to offer families a common process for applying to any school that would participate.

After their initial approach, 16 of the area’s 22 total charter schools were on board. (About 47% of all students in Kansas City attend charter schools.) The driving factor for participating schools? They all wanted “to create a more equitable system for our families,” says Kohlmeyer. “After our participating schools aligned the date, we inched forward, asking could we align the number of questions, then the number of documents asked upfront?” Ultimately, they agreed.

Working Through Concerns

Next, the organization needed not just an application platform that could accommodate different schools, but a partner with experience pulling this off. “Many of our partners pushed us to see what others were doing,” says Johnson, which led them to SchoolMint. One of the enrollment solutions that SchoolMint offers is a common, shared application process for different schools. In Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Oakland and other cities, families can apply to multiple schools using one application that’s powered by SchoolMint. “We give a lot of credit to SchoolMint for connecting us with others who are taking this approach. It was helpful to show our stakeholders where this is working and how others overcome their challenges. SchoolMint shared data and helped us get schools on board,” says Johnson.

In the winter of 2018, Show Me KC Schools launched SchoolAppKC. For the 2019-20 school year, families applying to the majority of KC charter schools did so using one, simple online application.

As a fully online process, some schools were concerned if families would be able to actually use the technology. But Show Me KC Schools had heard from other cities that the majority of families fill out their apps via mobile phones, and SchoolMint’s user-friendly design is optimized for families on mobile and a computer.

And in KC? “The application opened at 8:00am on December 3rd. By 8:02am, we had 17 applications. In 2 minutes, schools had received applications. That just shows you how easy it is,” confirms Johnson. “Schools will also likely end up with a higher number of applicants this year. By August 1st last year, about 4,300 applications had come in to different
schools,” says Kohlmeyer. “But with SchoolAppKC this year, application numbers had nearly surpassed that at 4,200 by early March” and many more are expected.

At the schools where leaders felt families would struggle to adopt the technology, it’s been a nonissue, says Kohlmeyer. She adds, “One woman I spoke to was convinced she filled out the application wrong. When I asked why, the woman said it took her 45 minutes to apply to a school that wasn’t participating in SchoolAppKC, so when SchoolAppKC said she was done after 2 minutes, she figured she made a mistake.”

Evidence Access Has Improved

By offering an easy-to-use, online application, Show Me KC Schools is confident they’ve broken down access barriers with SchoolAppKC. Regarding participation and equity, they’ve seen some good early stats: 84% of applicants in the first four months represented ethnicities other than Caucasian, they report.

SchoolAppKC united not just the timeline and application for 16 schools; it also brought all participating schools under a single accept model. On March 7th, families could receive multiple offers but only accept one of them. Families had two weeks to accept or decline their offers.

“We think there are a lot of positives for schools with the single accept model,” says Kohlmeyer. For one, it eliminates scenarios where families accept seats at four different schools and then forget to decline their other offers, resulting in schools planning for students who never show up. “Schools will have a more clear roster on the first day of school, and they’re really excited to have a clear picture of enrollment so early on in the spring.” It’s a much more sustainable way of operating, Kohlmeyer continues, as opposed to schools not finding out they have vacant seats they need to fill in August – after they’ve hired teachers, after they’ve purchased supplies.

SchoolAppKC has also helped schools deliver the transparency that families today are looking for. “There have been so many questions about how charter school applications work,” says Johnson. “There are theories about schools ‘cherry picking’ students, questions about why some applications require 15 pages of printed documents, an affidavit, and birth certificates. Those processes are creating unnecessary barriers.” But by using SchoolMint’s simple technology, SchoolAppKC removes the complications. “We’re taking away the skepticism. It is that transparent,” she adds.

Strategies for Success

Since SchoolAppKC and the single accept model were completely new to the community, Show Me KC Schools knew family outreach would be critical. Especially because there was that two-week window between when offers were extended and when families accepted them. The organization tapped their partners (pre-schools, etc.) to help spread the word and did door-to-door canvassing. Additionally, SchoolMint’s technology has been a huge help in this area. Because every family who submitted an application provided their phone number and email, Show Me KC Schools can contact every family until they accept or decline their offer. “We’re used to just putting messages out in the social media stratosphere or putting up a billboard and hoping we’re heard. To have a tool to contact families directly on our end is huge for us,” Johnson says.

These opening lines of communication are also creating avenues for greater family and school engagement. This year, Show Me KC Schools organized a city-wide open house and messaged everyone through SchoolAppKC to come spend a Saturday visiting the schools they had applied to. “Some of the schools had never had an open house before, so they’ve appreciated the extra attention,” explains Kohlmeyer.

Making Schools More Sustainable

Moving forward, they’re hoping that both the communication tools and the big picture insights they’ve received from SchoolMint’s data reporting will make operations more sustainable. Kohlmeyer explains that they have a couple of schools with 200 more applications then they have seats, and she’s hoping those schools can share that data with schools that are currently under-enrolled. Then, the over-enrolled schools could send messages in the spring, notifying families they may not get in and prompting them to explore where there’s availability.

Important to note is that all of this communication, seat-filling, and engagement is happening in the spring – months before it would have in years prior. And that’s a win for schools, because it’s driving that coveted stability with enrollment numbers. “Schools are starting to form relationships with their families in the spring, as opposed to July, showing them the culture and expectations of the school. With more time to build bonds, bonds are stronger, and the chances that students will stay in their seats come August will be higher,” says Johnson.

Looking ahead, Johnson and Kohlmeyer are hoping other schools will unite their timelines and applications and join SchoolAppKC. They’re confident adding new schools, from the technical side of things, won’t be an issue because SchoolMint helps with that. “I’m just a nice face schools have locally. SchoolMint’s customer success specialists do a great job supporting individual schools on their end for their specific needs.” And with such positive family feedback, and visible results towards increased equity, they’re confident initial goals have been met. “We didn’t take just one step, we took a hundred in that direction,” Kohlmeyer concludes.