What LAUSD's new 'one-stop shop' school choice system will (probably) look like

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Superintendent Michelle King wants Los Angeles Unified School District officials to speed their efforts to create a "one-stop shop" where parents can browse and apply for all the district's popular choice programs — like magnet schools, open enrollment and gifted programs — from a single website.

This week, King gave herself a deadline of bringing that site "fully online" during the 2017-18 school year, though members of the district working group on the project later added that it might only cover a limited geographic area or student age range in its first year.

The new "unified enrollment system" will consolidate the varying enrollment processes from each of L.A. Unified's half-dozen major school choice options into a single application with a single deadline, officials said.

Applicants would potentially access that application, paired with a tool to search through choice options that exist nearby, through the district's online parent portal.

King has signaled she wants to make school choice a focus of her superintendency, hoping expanded access to popular programs build around themes like arts, science, language immersion or career education will draw families back into the district and curb a decade-long enrollment decline.

Such programs have already proven popular with L.A. parents, but King has said they have a tough time simply figuring out what school choices they have.

“It’s been complicated for parents to figure out what they’re applying for, when,” the superintendent told KPCC. “The deadlines are very different depending on their programs of interest."

District officials first discussed their plans to create a "unified enrollment system" in May, but at the time said there was no timeline for completing the project.

The unified enrollment portal would include two core features: first, a search engine that would allow parents to view and search a map of programs in schools close by and "create a shopping cart," said Dunia Fernandez, a program and policy development specialist for L.A. Unified.

Second, the portal would feature one common application for L.A. Unified's disparate choice programs; currently, there are separate applications — some online and some on paper — and deadlines for LAUSD's magnet programs, dual language schools, Schools for Advanced Studies, Zones of Choice schools, intra-district permits and other programs.

"I think anything that improves access for parents to navigate the wide array of choices in Los Angeles is a good thing,” said Myrna Castrejón, executive director of the non-profit organization Great Public Schools Now — a group allied with big players in the charter school sector, but which advocates for expanded school choice in L.A. more broadly.

It’s not clear whether charter schools that L.A. Unified oversees will be part of the unified enrollment system. King has said she’s open to exploring it.

Castrejón called a unified enrollment system that includes both charter and non-charter L.A. Unified schools “the ideal,” but said it might not be practical to include charters at first.

Many large urban districts across the U.S. use unified enrollment systems, but they each work differently. In some cities, applicants can rank their preferred schools — including, sometimes, independent charter schools — and then receive school assignments based on those rankings. In theory, these ranking systems can shorten, or even eliminate entirely, school waiting lists.

But Jesus Angulo, another L.A. Unified official on the working group, said L.A. Unified’s common application likely would not be built around a ranking system.

"The intent we’re trying to achieve is where a parent fills one common application, then depending on the choices they make, that common application will transfer to the respective systems of choice,” he said. Then, the office overseeing each program to which a parent was applying would independently reply with their decision.

The unified enrollment working group does not yet know whether they’ll call for bids for a vendor to create the portal or complete the work in-house, Angulo said.

As rough sketches for the new one-stop shop begin to come into focus, details of how King plans to expand school choice in L.A. Unified are not yet clear.

Castrejón said L.A. Unified educators must be mindful not to let an expansion of choice stop with a common application or better marketing of the district's vast array of options.

"If it’s simply putting a new label on an old program or adding a couple electives, then calling it a 'themed program,’ and quality isn’t what undergirds that, then we’re not necessarily making progress,” said Castrejón.

"Choice alone,” she added, "or choice for choice’s sake, is not going to get us to where we need."

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