Like parents across Camden, Veronica Ramirez had a choice to make.
Preparing earlier this year to enroll her son in kindergarten, Ramirez initially hoped to send him to an elementary school run by KIPP, a charter-school operator. But when she visited the school on a bus tour, she decided the environment might overwhelm her son, who has special needs. She preferred a school operated by Mastery.
Ramirez's son is one of 3,000 students who selected schools for the coming year through Camden Enrollment, a citywide system that lets students apply to nearly any public school in the city with one application, ranking their choices and receiving an offer. Supporters say the process, which began three years ago, is intended to level the playing field for families in a city where more than half of students attend schools that aren't run by the Camden School District.
"Some families have the time, have the resources, have the wherewithal to go to 18 different schools and do the research and fill out the applications," said Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. "The reality is, most families don't."
Of students who applied in the main enrollment round for the coming school year, 81 percent received an offer from a school on their list.
But some contend that the system — which the district turned over to a nonprofit last year — addresses a problem that doesn't exist and is geared toward boosting charter organizations that have taken over former district schools. Similar objections have been raised elsewhere: In Philadelphia, a plan to create a universal school enrollment system stalled in 2014 amid questions over how students would be assigned to schools and who would manage the process.
"The idea we need Camden Enrollment — that's a damn lie," said Keith Benson, the president of the Camden Education Association. In social-media posts, Benson has been telling parents not to use the system, which he contends is manipulating enrollment in part by saying seats are filled at district-run schools.
Every student is guaranteed a spot at his or her neighborhood school. The district provides capacity numbers for how many seats are available at a school for students outside its neighborhood, according to Camden Enrollment codirector Abby McCartney. School staff are trained to register a neighborhood student even if the Camden Enrollment system shows no seats available, McCartney said.
In the current school year, 6,800 students attend district schools, 4,400 attend charter schools, and 3,800 attend Renaissance schools, which, like charter schools, are publicly funded but privately run. But unlike traditional charters, Camden's Renaissance schools are former district schools and are required to serve students in the surrounding neighborhood.
In 2016-17, district enrollment was close to 7,000. Charters enrolled 5,000 students, and Renaissance schools 3,000. The state closed a charter school at the end of that year; it was taken over by a Renaissance school.
District enrollment topped 10,000 in the 2014-15 school year as the city's first Renaisssance schools opened, but two years before enrollment was unified.
"There's no broad trend" as a result of unified enrollment, Rouhanifard said. "If we were a thumb on the scale, how did that happen?"
The enrollment center has a hotline, and conversations begin with identifying the caller's neighborhood school, said Tameeka Mason, the system's family support supervisor.
"When we speak with families, we don't recommend specific schools" but ask what parents are looking for, Mason said.
She and McCartney acknowledged anxiety about the system.
Calling the enrollment system a "scam," Benson wrote on Facebook: "Billionaires we have never seen are investing millions in Camden to close our schools and … push residents out."
Camden Enrollment is funded in part by a $1.3 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Established by the Arnolds, a former oil company executive and an investor who live in Houston, the foundation bankrolls "portfolio model" education initiatives that "promote a decentralized administration and more school choice for families."
In Camden, it has invested more than $12 million, with grants to advocacy and parent groups, efforts to replicate "high-quality" charter schools, and teacher-training and recruitment programs.
"What got us interested in Camden" was its leadership — the state took over the school district in 2013 and named Rouhanifard superintendent — and the law creating Renaissance schools, which passed in 2012, said Neerav Kingsland, senior education fellow at the foundation.
Camden's Renaissance schools are run by the KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon organizations. All three have been backed by the Charter School Growth Fund, which has received grants from the Arnold Foundation for efforts in Camden. Kingsland said the fund has "expertise in evaluating" schools and makes individual decisions on which to support.
Of unified enrollment, "you get to see which schools parents really want to send their schools to," Kingsland said. The foundation has given up to $1.4 million to start a unified enrollment system for Philadelphia charter schools, which enroll one-third of the city's public-school students. The Philadelphia Schools Partnership expects to launch a website this fall.
In Camden, however, schools participating in the enrollment system don't receive information on how they rank with students compared with other individual schools. "Some of it's behind a bit of a curtain. You're never sure exactly how another school is doing," said Joe Conway, cofounder and superintendent of Camden's Promise Charter School.
McCartney said the board has not released data on which schools are most in demand in part out of concern that it could underestimate demand for district schools. Families do not need to use Camden Enrollment to apply to their neighborhood district school.
The system has made it easier for parents to enroll, said Conway, who is president of the Camden Enrollment board. But it also makes it easier for students to transfer, he said. Conway said that issue had lessened recently, and families "seem to be finding the school they like."
Student transfers were cited by LEAP Academy Charter School when it withdrew from the enrollment system last year, becoming the lone public school in the city not to participate.
Manuel Delgado, the school's chief operations officer, said some students accepted offers to attend the school, then never showed up.
With universal enrollment, "parents didn't come to open houses," Delgado said in a recent interview. "They could simply go online and wait and see. We lost a lot of connections with families."
Some attrition is not uncommon, McCartney said. She added that Camden Enrollment had documented cases of families who had sought to register at LEAP but had trouble getting in touch with the school.
In a letter to the state last year, the Camden School District alleged that LEAP had been engaging in unfair enrollment practices, encouraging some parents to lie by falsely listing current students as siblings on applications to increase their children's chances of being selected, while not responding to others.
LEAP's founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, noted that the state permitted the school to exit the enrollment system. She said it was "very unfair and very cheap" for the district to make the accusations against LEAP after the school sought to withdraw.
Before the new system, school enrollment in Camden was "open to a lot of politics," said Sean Brown, a former school board member and a parent in Camden.
"If you knew the principal, or knew the right person to talk to … then you would be able to get that special transfer," said Brown, who served on the board before the state takeover. "If you had a language barrier, if you didn't have the relationships, you weren't able to take advantage of that."
Rouhanifard, who is stepping down at the end of the school year, said the district "tried to be very mindful of critiques we received." To ensure neutrality, he said, it turned the system over to a newly created nonprofit last year. It also removed ratings that labeled some schools under-performing.
Those ratings "tremendously downplay the complexity of a school," Rouhanifard said. Camden Enrollment still provides information on school academic performance.
It also organized the bus tour that helped Ramirez pick a school for her son. "They didn't tell me where to go," she said. "You've got to make your own choice."