A Transformative Year: How Automating Enrollment Helped One District Add Students & Reallocate Resources
Guilford County Schools (GCS), in North Carolina, is one of the nation’s 50 largest school districts. Serving more than 70,000 students, GCS had long faced an administrative challenge familiar to many districts across the country: Managing the processes and paperwork for enrolling tens of thousands of students in more than 120 schools had become complicated, cumbersome, and expensive. District leaders also worried that some families were choosing non-GCS schools simply because they found the application process for GCS magnet programs to be confusing and, therefore, daunting.
In early 2018, GCS decided to make a change. The district planned to move all its enrollment processes online. The new site went live in April, and enrollments started pouring in. “Parents are delighted with the experience,” says Scott McCully, Sr. Executive Director of Student Assignment, at GCS.
As it turned out, the transition to SchoolMint’s online enrollment came at a critical time. With schools and offices closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, parents would not have been able to hand-deliver enrollment paperwork as many had in the past. Instead, parents accessed the platform from the comfort of their homes. And when the district launched new programs, including virtual schools, to accommodate the changing needs of the community, the new site made enrolling in these programs an option for every family.
A Path to Financial Security
Automating enrollment has helped GCS both retain existing students and bring in new students—along with the funding that is tied to those students. Applications for the district’s magnet programs significantly increased. And in the midst of uncertain times, the number of students enrolled in GCS schools has exceeded enrollment projections.
At the same time, online enrollment has created significant savings for the school district. In the past, GCS had to hire temporary staff during enrollment season to sort and manage paperwork. The district also used to purchase boxes upon boxes of paper as well as file folders, labels, and copy machines. And mailing updates to families, said McCully, was a huge expense. “Now that we don’t have all the paper [and supplies],” he says, “we can have a smaller, consolidated office.” When district offices closed their doors in March, GCS was well-positioned to roll out the new system. McCully and his team were able to manage all aspects of enrollment without leaving their homes. “I told the superintendent there was no need to be in the office because we can handle this entire process remotely and more time to support families needing additional support,” said McCully.
The new enrollment system also allowed GCS to be nimble and responsive to families’ changing needs. District leaders recognized that families might choose virtual schools outside the district if GCS did not offer a long-term remote option. The district launched virtual programs for elementary, middle, and high school, and made these new options available to families through SchoolMint Enrollment. Thousands of students who might have otherwise been forced to seek out non-GCS options are now enrolled in these virtual programs.
A Focus on Families
McCully was initially drawn to SchoolMint for its parent experience, he says, noting that the interface is “slick, cool, and most importantly, easy to use.” That approach has paid off.
Parents no longer need to navigate multiple platforms or time-consuming paper processes. Whether a family is applying for a magnet program, submitting a transfer request, or registering for their zoned school, they use the same portal. Furthermore, says McCully, “parents have control over the process and know that [the forms they complete] aren’t disappearing on somebody’s desk or in somebody’s file cabinet.”
In fact, parents are kept in the loop every step of the way. They receive an email or text message—whichever they prefer—each time there is an update. The system also nudges them to complete missing information and to meet submission deadlines.
Staff members used to transcribe handwritten forms into a database, inevitably introducing errors due to hard-to-read handwriting or lack of familiarity with a student. Now that parents enter their children’s information directly, those mistakes are avoided. The enrollment team simply verifies data that is already in the system. “Internally, we just operate so much more efficiently,” McCully says.
Having a flexible and adaptable enrollment system has helped GCS support the local community under unexpected and complex circumstances. Those students who chose in-person learning options (the vast majority) started the current school year with nine weeks of remote learning. Since a large number of GCS students do not have reliable internet access, the district needed to take additional steps to ensure that all students could log on to learn.
GCS opened 23 learning centers, where students have access to devices and the internet during the school day. Families use SchoolMint’s CGS platform to sign up their children to use the centers. It is one of many ways that the portal is supporting GCS in its goal to make all programs more equitable. When district leaders made the decision to partner with SchoolMint, one of their priorities was to increase access to the district’s magnet programs. GCS is using SchoolMint’s Application and Lottery Management tool to randomly select applicants to these programs. “The goal was to increase access and address parent concerns that the process is fair,” says McCully. “Having an online system goes a long way to establish that.”
Another important step was making the process accessible to parents whose first language is not English. GCS’s registration portal is available in the six most widely spoken languages in Guilford County. “Having the option to complete the process in one’s native language,” says McCully, “helps in terms of eliminating barriers.”
Increasing access also meant choosing a system that can be accessed from a mobile device. SchoolMint is designed for use on a computer or mobile device, and in fact, more than half of families access SchoolMint using a mobile device. Parents can use either a phone number or email address to sign in and receive notifications. “That’s really important,” says McCully, “because not everybody has email, but almost everybody has a phone number.”
Now that one enrollment cycle is complete, district leaders are analyzing the data they collected to get a better picture of what is working and what can be improved. With more applications received, more students enrolled, and more money saved than in the past, there is much for McCully’s team to celebrate, particularly in a year that brought unprecedented challenges. But McCully is not stopping there. “I’m really curious,” he says, “to see what next year adds to this.”