Philly stumbles on way to simplifying enrollment system

Part 55 of 55 in the series Educating America

UNIVERSAL ENROLLMENT: Philadelphia is simplifying school application and admission in fits and starts.

By Maura Pennington |

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia is taking steps toward simplifying its application and enrollment system for K-12 education, but its path has been anything but smooth.

By consolidating the admission process, the city would join other districts around the country in making it easier for families to navigate choices and find a school that fits their needs.

The process, universal enrollment, has two main elements —creating basic application forms and one-step submissions, then, in turn, developing a program that matches and admits students to schools.

But Philadelphia faces some obstacles. For one, the timeline for implementation of a full school-matching system is undetermined.

“There are still huge policy questions that have to be answered,” said Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief education officer, Lori Shorr, during a School Reform Commission policy and planning meeting in January.

Other school districts in the nation have had an easier time with such programs.

“A common enrollment system is a sensible approach that is being used with success in other places,” the Education Voters of Pennsylvania said in a brief submitted to the SRC.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan group highlights Denver, which created a centralized application and single deadline for district and charter schools. Newark, for instance, launched an initial attempt at a common application and lottery this year called One Newark Enrolls.

So, what makes Philadelphia more complex, and why has it stumbled?

The city hosts a collaborative effort known as the Great Schools Compact between the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania charter school organizations, the mayor, the state Department of Education and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia School Partnership facilitates a committee of representatives from these groups.

Fueling confusion about Philadelphia’s approach to universal enrollment, the PSP, would not go on record to comment on the initiative.

Yet a website — PhillySchoolAPP — is up and running as the central hub for information and application materials for participating district, charter and Catholic schools.

While the site is now designed as a clearinghouse for families and students to find applications, according to a presentation made by the PSP to the Philadelphia City Council in September, the goal is for PhillySchoolAPP to run “a centralized lottery and school-matching service.”

Students would select a few choices, then, as an independent third-party organization, PhillySchoolAPP would use an algorithm that accounts for student preference, school capacity, geography, family, and, in the case of private schools, the availability of tuition assistance. In theory, students would be admitted to a matching school.

Based on the information given to the City Council earlier this year, philanthropy will underwrite the cost of using the outside agency for Philadelphia’s application and enrollment program in the first few years.

After that, “participating schools will contribute to system costs via a small per-pupil fee.”

There’s no word yet on how much that “small” fee will cost.

While Philadelphia’s efforts have lacked clarity, Newark’s universal enrollment program is off to a strong start.

“One Newark Enrolls represents a collaboration between community-based partners, charter partners, funders, families and educators,” said Newark Public Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson.

As a public school choice initiative, it does not include religious schools. Almost 6,000 families are participating this year.

Contact Maura Pennington at and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas

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