Caitlin Hannon gave up her job and her Indianapolis Public School Board seat for an idea that, while a pretty good bet to give her a future role in education in the city, is far from a slam dunk to succeed.
She’s taken the leap from suggesting a unified enrollment system as a board member to starting one herself. Her goal goes beyond just matching families with the best schools for their children.
She also thinks if parents all fill out one common application form, whether they want an IPS or charter school, and feed their desires into one database, it could help solve for Indianapolis one of education’s biggest mysteries: the motivations behind how and why they made those choices.
Hannon now has two years to start a nonprofit, find financial support, create a complex data system and, most importantly, get buy-in from her former board colleagues, the office of a new mayor, the leaders of local charter schools and perhaps even other public schools and even private schools.
Why take such a risk?
“We built this system to give families in public schools other choices,” she said. “How do you actually find what those options are?”
Understanding parent choices
On Monday, Hannon was selected by the Mind Trust as just the ninth “education entrepreneur” fellow since the organization was founded in 2006. The goal of the program is to provide education innovators time and financial support for groundbreaking ideas to improve student learning in Indianapolis.
The Mind Trust is investing $240,000 to create the system between the two-year fellowship pay and help with start-up costs.
Hannon said her goal is to create a single application parents could use to request schools for the 2017-18 school year. Her plan is to have it ready in late 2016 before the district normally begins gearing up its magnet school lottery.
Her vision is a system parents can use to learn about schools, rank them by preference and request children be assigned to their favorites.
A unified enrollment system is not a unique idea. New Orleans is a well-known example among a handful of cities that have tried it.
Hannon proposed such a system while on the school board, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was supportive. He said the district had preliminary conversations with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which oversees a stable of more than 20 charter schools, about a shared system for both.
Other charter schools in the city will be invited to also join in. An invitation to private schools is even possible, especially those that receive publicly funded vouchers that use state education dollars to pay tuition for poor and middle class families that qualify.
“I think it would be worth sitting down with places like the Oaks Academy and Archdiocese of Indianapolis to see if they are interested in a seat at the table,” Hannon said.
As the number of schools that participates grows, the data should begin to shed light on what factors parents consider most important in choosing schools.
The answer could include surprises.
Many studies show the academic reputation of a school is a key factor parents consider when given a choice. But other factors are often rated nearly as important, such as whether the school is safe, how close it is to home, the recommendations of friends and family even what kind of lunch they serve.
So for some families, academic factors could be the top or as low as the third or fourth priority.
Surprisingly, schools sometimes fail to communicate to parents information about critical factors they use to choose where to enroll their students, said Addie Angelov, a University of Indianapolis professor who has written a book about school marketing.
Instead, schools are often overly focused on the priorities of legislators, who emphasize test scores and A-to-F grades far ahead all other factors.
“Politicians think if it’s an A, it’s good,” she said. “You don’t even need to walk through the building. But families don’t think that way. They may rank that much lower.”
Ensuring fairness, inspiring confidence
IPS has been working toward improving access to its own school choice options: magnet schools built around themes like foreign language instruction or Montessori curriculum and encouraging families to attend an expanded enrollment fair to learn about those schools.
But the district’s choice system doesn’t always work well. Popular schools have waiting lists, and the processes for being selected aren’t always clear to parents.
Plus, the magnet lottery is open only to families that go through the effort to apply. Others might not understand their options within the district beyond their neighborhood schools, much less those outside IPS. There is some evidence that children more likely to face learning barriers are less likely to get coveted spots in magnet schools. Some magnet schools, for example, have far fewer poor children or children who need special education services than a typical IPS school.
But if everyone is selecting schools through the same system, which makes their options clearer, those kids might get more opportunities.
“This establishes without any question that it’s completely fair,” Hannon said. “Even for district magnets there will be equal access.”
For charter schools, the system could eliminate concerns raised by critics about “skimming,” or the notion that some charter schools target wealthier or more academically accomplished students and find ways to discourage other children from enrolling.
Such practices are illegal. Charter schools are required to accept all children who enroll just like traditional public schools and most hold public lotteries if more student apply than the school can fit.
“This can be the proof point that we don’t do that,” Hannon said.
Some charter schools could be uneasy, however, about turning over control of their enrollment processes to an outside organization handling such large amounts of data. The advantage is far more families could learn about the school and consider applying.
“I can understand their worry,” Hannon said. “I’ve been part of a bureaucracy the last three years and seen how slow it can move and that can be frustrating. But this is giving up a small amount of freedom to make a system that works for all. The best charter school leaders think it’s right for kids.”
Better or worse for IPS?
Other critics worry that such a system could advantage charter schools, funneling more students out of IPS.
When students leave, so do the state dollars that support their schools. As the district has lost students and received less state aid over several decades it has become harder to offer as many services or even afford to pay regular raises to teachers.
“I just think it’s an unnecessary marriage,” board member Gayle Cosby said.
Cosby recently traveled to New Orleans for an education conference and heard from families who used that city’s shared enrollment system. They described waiting in long lines and being shut out from their favored options.
“Everything I heard was they were not able to get close to the choices they wanted,” she said.
For now, Cosby is in the minority on a board that has otherwise not been troubled by Ferebee’s interest in the idea.
Hannon’s departure from the board, however, removes its biggest champion of the common application idea, so a new board member could have different ideas.
The board is accepting applications for the open spot through 5 p.m. on Aug. 21. Those interested should send a resume and cover letter explaining why they want to join the board to email@example.com.
Interviews will be held on Aug. 26, and the board expects to vote on a replacement at its regular meeting on Aug. 27. The successful candidate must earn four votes from the six remaining board members.
Hannon is optimistic her successor will be like minded about her idea because the majority of those picking her replacement share her views.
Connecting parent demand with school decisions
An effective system could do something else for schools. It could be a data treasure trove that reveals more information about how and why parents choose schools.
For example, Hannon said, all schools could get a better understanding of which schools are in high demand and which have the fewest families interested in choosing them.
That’s a useful factor for school board members to weigh as they make big decisions about schools that loom over the next few years. IPS is looking at how best to use schools, for example, that have low enrollment. Should they be combined? If two schools are combined, should the children always be shifted to the one with the higher test scores? Or if parents are choosing the lower-rated school of the pair in bigger numbers, perhaps that is an argument to shift the students there instead?
“This gives us an opportunity to know where the parents think they want kids to go to school,” Mind Trust CEO David Harris said, “to see where the parents think schools are effective.”
That kind of information would have helped her as a school board member, Hannon said. For example, as IPS tries new methods to turn around schools, should test scores and A-to-F grades be the only factor to help choose which schools need a complete overhaul?
Last year, the school board was persuaded to try the district’s home-grown Project Restore school improvement method at School 93 after parents at the school, with help from the advocacy group Stand For Children, collected signatures demanding it. Administrators worked out a plan with the two former School 99 teachers who founded Project Restore to expand it there.
IPS also has new partnerships this year with charter school networks designed to improve struggling district schools. School 103 is now run in partnership with the district by administrators from the Phalen Leadership Academy Charter School and Charter Schools USA launched an elementary school within Donnan Middle School with the goal of preparing students better before they reach seventh grade.
As more schools move toward shared district-charter oversight, blurring the lines between school types, Hannon argues the need for parents to have information and access will grow.
“How cool would it be to have a wealth of data about what schools parents want in this neighborhood?” she said.
A third-party organization managing student enrollment requests and assignments for schools inside IPS, outside the district and those jointly run can help ensure confidence in the system and fairness, Hannon said.
“I heard from people you need somebody independent,” she said. “There is so much change happening at the district. We’re just now getting to a place where districts and charters are collaborating.”