Chicago Public Schools and Blackstone Valley Prep are providing equal access through strategic enrollment management.

Spring must finally be breaking around the country because the birds the chirping, the sun is shining, and the school applications are going out. Yes, it’s application time again, and it seems more and more communities are expanding open enrollment policies and charter and magnet school programs continue to grow.

While open enrollment policies result in more family engagement – which is no doubt a win for our collective future – they could also have serious implications on our society, if they are not rolled out in a strategic manner. For example, how does a district or network make sure all families – not just those with means – can equally participate in new enrollment processes? And how do you make sure open seats are actually being distributed fairly?

These concerns were not lost on Chicago Public Schools (CPS). And so last year, they turned to SchoolMint for help.

In the past, the city’s “school-selection process (had) long been criticized for its complexity,” notes the Chicago Tribute. And complexities make it harder for families to participate from the start. And so, CPS tasked us at SchoolMint with creating “an online, mobile-friendly application that would simplify the process for parents and help administrators manage enrollment.”

Working alongside the district, we helped transform enrollment with GoCPS. This online system allows high school-bound 8th grade students interested in charter schools or a district school outside their neighborhood assignment to submit an application and rank their schools by preference. Once seats are fairly assigned by complex algorithms, the system extends offers to families, distributing seats and waitlist placements over a transparent, multi-step process.

Access equality was critical to the new system design, and so steps were taken to eliminate any barriers that may have prevented some families from participating. Since low-income families are less likely to have computer access, the system needed to be completely mobile-friendly. A user-friendly experience, multilingual interface, and text communications were also essential to encourage inclusion.

After a successful launch, district CEO Janice Jackson confirmed that incredibly, “93% of the district’s eighth-graders participated in the GoCPS application system.” That’s close to 27,000 students, and about 20,000 of them, reports the Chicago Tribune, were offered a spot at one of their top three chosen schools.

Such high participation is a sign that equal access to choice is possible, even in a large district. “I am confident that this new system will make the school application process more equitable, and I look forward to continued feedback from our families as this process moves forward,” Jackson also said.

And the CPS results should also encourage other public schools. Jackson indicated the application data revealed strong family interest in neighborhood schools that offered special programs, concluding “it’s a signal we have to continue to invest in programs (…) that parents are seeking out.”

Further east, Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) Mayoral Academy, a public network of charter schools run by the Rhode Island Department of Education, was also pleased with enrollment results this year.

The network uses a lottery to distribute seats, and in the past, they were gathering and cleaning the data, then running the lottery, by hand. Switching to SchoolMint’s online lottery was an instant win for BVP’s operational efficiencies. But also for transparency and equality, too.

With manual lotteries, any school – no matter how diligent – is still susceptible to unintentional human error. But when families apply online with SchoolMint, we can electronically verify, clean, and sync that data for schools. Our online lottery assigns seats based on algorithms, eliminating the potential for manual mistakes, which is especially important when preferences are complex.

Just like in Chicago, BVP needed a system that was designed to include all families rather than exclude. SchoolMint’s family-friendly user interface was a deciding factor for BVP, says Chiv Heng, the network’s Director of Operations.

Functionality was also important. The online lottery process allows all families to have equal access to BVP’s spots because each student is treated fairly by the error-free system. Plus, families can see how the system works for themselves – and that helps them trust the process is fair.

What’s most encouraging about BVP’s success is mirrored in Chicago. Two public institutions are seeing enrollment AND equality thriving, side by side.