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One application for many LAUSD school options? That's the district's plan

Los Angeles Unified School District buses wait to pick up students.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Los Angeles Unified School District buses wait to pick up students.

Attention, families overwhelmed by the dizzying process of choosing a school in Los Angeles: school district officials say they feel your pain — and they're beginning an effort to make it easier to enroll a child in a school other than the one dictated by their home address.

L.A. Unified leaders are in the early stages of creating a unified enrollment system that would create a single application with a single deadline for many of the district's dozen or so disparate school choice programs.

It's one way district officials are trying to break the steady trend of enrollment decline in L.A. Unified — which has lost 200,000 students since 2002 — and offer clearer alternatives to the charter schools to which many of these students have flocked.

The effort is still in initial planning phases. Superintendent Michelle King included plans to unify the district's enrollment systems in a budget presentation to school board members this week. But Jesus Angulo, Director of Academic and Counseling Services for L.A. Unified, said the district hasn't yet set a timeline for rolling out a new system.

"My urgency is high," Angulo said. "I would love for this to come out in the near future, but I want to make sure in what we're doing internally, we're lining everything up in the right way." 

As district officials envision it, the new unified enrollment system likely wouldn't include the charter schools L.A. Unified oversees. It would, however, likely include applications for the district's popular magnet programs as well as open enrollment, dual language schools, Schools for Advanced Studies, Zones of Choice schools, intra-district permits and other programs.

Currently, each of these programs has its own application process and its own deadline; families must submit magnet applications by November, for instance, but paperwork for Schools for Advanced Studies (SAS) comes due in late April. What's more, parents can't apply for every program online.

District officials want to create a "one-stop shop" for school choice in the form of an online portal where parents would browse many of their options and submit applications during a single, six-week window in late fall. King said confusion about the patchwork of application deadlines often causes parents to miss out on school options.

"Parents don’t know [the deadlines], so we miss them, and they miss us," King told board members during her presentation on Tuesday.

But who builds this portal? Angulo said district officials are still exploring whether they are able to create the unified enrollment website themselves or if they'll have to farm out the job to a third-party vendor. King also noted the effort will require support in the district's budget.

Parents in most major American metro areas face choices about where to send their kids in school, and some large districts have tried to centralize that choice process. San Francisco and Seattle, for example, have centralized applications for in-district school choices — but neither of their centralized applications include charter schools.

Denver's application, on the other hand, does include charter schools, meaning parents can apply to charter and district options on the same form. The Recovery School District in New Orleans, which is almost entirely comprised of charter schools, also has centralized its application process.

Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, a philanthropy that funds urban education initiatives, said common enrollment systems make the school choice system much more easy for parents to navigate. They also eliminate what Siedlecki called the "waitlist shuffle."

"Under the current system, you can apply to multiple schools," Siedlecki explained, "get into multiple schools, and then you can wait until the school year begins to actually pick your school.

"That may advantage you," he added, "but it disadvantages other families because they’re on waiting lists waiting to see who’s going to land where ultimately."

Theoretically — and ideally, Siedlecki said — unified enrollment systems can eliminate waitlists entirely, meaning families who rank five of their top choices for schools will at least get into one of those five. Siedlecki said that process is much more equitable.

But that does raise a concern for Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, who coaches parents on how to navigate L.A.'s school choice process on a volunteer basis. While she said she likes the idea of condensing the application timeline, she worries that a common application could end up limiting parents' choices — or force them to settle for a choice they really don't want.

"The beautiful thing about [L.A.'s] system has always been … you can apply to all of these things, and you have multiple chances,"  she said. "It's like having more than one lottery ticket. You have more than one shot at the raffle."

But Zobel-Rodriguez added that she does coach parents not to hang around on waitlists for too long — particularly if a school is their third or fourth choice — and said she likes the idea of a common enrollment system that simplifies the waitlist process.