Multiple applications and deadlines. Confusion over the process and where to get information. Inconsistent support for families trying to navigate their choices.
Choosing and applying for schools in Philadelphia can be a challenge, according to a report issued Wednesday by a pro-school-choice group. It recommends steps to streamline the application process across all schools — district, charter, or private.
The report, by Educational Opportunities for Families, calls for a single application to be used for all schools in Philadelphia, and the same deadlines for submitting applications, issuing offers to families, and selecting schools.
It stops short of calling for a system that matches each student to one school, a process adopted by several cities nationally.
An earlier proposal to unify Philadelphia's enrollment process stalled after a 2014 hearing, where some voiced concerns that a single-best-offer system would narrow parents' choices. Unified enrollment proposals have also drawn criticism in some cities, including from opponents of charter-school expansion.
They argue that the system is aimed at boosting charter enrollments. Advocates say the current process shortchanges families, particularly those who may struggle to navigate their choices.
"We have so many options and choices today. We just want a simpler process," said Sylvia P. Simms, executive director of Educational Opportunities for Families and a former School Reform Commission member.
The report was authored by Heather Cope, a Philadelphia-based consultant who previously worked for the Camden School District — which has a unified enrollment system — and education agencies in other states.
Her report summarizes the process in three cities that have partially or fully unified enrollment — Chicago, Indianapolis, and Washington.
In Philadelphia, "there's just a lot of confusion, and for families especially, frustration," Cope said. "We were really trying to dig into what families were experiencing, and what they hoped might happen going forward."
The problem, she and Simms said, is that the current school application process is one of "haves and have-nots."
At feedback sessions in North, Northeast, Northwest and West Philadelphia, and another session online, parents said it was "challenging trying to figure out the requirements, dates, availability, and admissions process" for various schools, and that "you have to be an active parent," according to the report.
Philadelphia's school choices include selective-admission district schools, like Masterman, which admit students based on criteria including academic performance; citywide district schools, like Dobbins, which also have admissions criteria but are less selective; neighborhood district schools, which serve students in a specific attendance area; and charter schools.
Charter schools, which are authorized by the Philadelphia School District, are publicly funded but independently run. They enroll about 70,000, or one-third of students in the district. There are also nearly 200 private and parochial schools, according to the report.
The report and information collected by the district "shows that all families and students want to know more about how to access the many options that are available," said district spokesman Lee Whack. He said the district was "committed to exploring what we can do to ensure all families can participate in school selection."
A website launched this year allows students to apply to most charter schools in the city with one application. The Apply Philly Charter effort, run by the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership, includes standard deadlines for students to apply, and for schools to accept students. Schools still run their own lotteries.
Apply Philly Charter was started with a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which also funded Camden's enrollment system and charter-school expansions nationally. David Saenz, a spokesman for Philadelphia School Partnership, said the grant "does include funds that can be used to explore how more public schools can be added in the future, either charter or district."
Cope said it was difficult to estimate what it would cost to streamline applications across the city. In addition to implementing a single application and deadlines, the report recommends providing families "unbiased support" in selecting schools and access to technology.
Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Educational Opportunities for Families, said the group is funded by Excellent Schools PA. A political action committee, Excellent Schools PA advocates for school choice and charter schools. It sued the Philadelphia School District earlier this year over new charter regulations.