Ask any family where they go for information and they’re going to say the internet. That’s because today, the web has become the ubiquitous destination for research. And it’s true for every question a family has – from when the grocery store closes to how to start a college savings fund. When it comes to searching for information about K12 schools, the process is no different. Families start online and they make decisions based on what they see there.
Just a few years ago, this reality was forcing the local education leaders in Camden City, New Jersey to act. School choice is central to the K12 landscape in that city. Families can select from 40+ neighborhood, renaissance, or charter schools, and students are matched to schools via a unified enrollment process coordinated by non-profit Camden Enrollment.
As is the case in many communities where school choice exists, concerns around accessibility – and ultimately, about fairness for all populations – existed. “Anytime you have a family that needs to make an active choice, as opposed to going to the school they’re automatically zoned to, you’re looking at a family that needs information,” explained Abby McCartney, Camden Enrollment’s Executive Director, via webinar. Depending on the family, she continued, they may need help navigating that process, and they may need support. And while the level of choice that exists in Camden is rather robust, McCartney knows any level of choice creates a need for information about those choices, saying, “I think that’s a scenario that’s happening in a lot of communities. Parents are thinking, what are my choices?
What does my child want? What does my child need?”
Helping to provide these answers, Camden leaders felt, would be essential, and it was one driving factor behind their launch of a SchoolFinder tool. SchoolFinder by SchoolMint is a detailed website that contains all the information families need during the school search process. And in Camden, McCartney has said it helped the team “inform families of two central questions around school options: What are my choices? Which schools are a good fit for my needs?”
On Camden’s SchoolFinder website, every school a family can choose from is clearly listed, mapped, and profiled. That’s important because, when deciding on a school, it’s not just about grades. “The focus of the school, school services, or afterschool programs might be important to a family,” McCartney explained, and so under each school’s profile on the site, families can easily see all those details. They also included performance, academic ratings, and other information that helps families “make apples-to-apples comparisons between schools.” And because Camden Enrollment worked with SchoolMint to configure the site with their central office verified data, the profiles are accurate and reliable – and the information is controlled by the schools themselves, not outside voices.
Further west, the need for better school information was also being felt in the city of Denver. There, state policy and local structure were designed to give families robust options for school choice. But in practice, many families were facing a couple of hurdles when seeking information about schools. With a student population that was 56% Hispanic and 37% English Language Learners, language was a major one, reported Brian Eschbacher, the Executive Director of Enrollment and Planning for Denver Public Schools (DPS) in 2017 via webinar.
“A big piece of equity is informing our parents,” he said. For families who are new to the country or didn’t have Choice when they were growing up, “it’s a new idea for families to be picking from schools. You used to know where you were going. How do we inform parents about something that is still so new to the vast majority?”
This potential information gap could have been a massive problem, if only some families could understand the process – and therefore only the most informed families – would participate. So to help overcome “any stigma that choice is only for engaged families,” Eschbacher described, they turned to SchoolFinder. Denver’s SchoolFinder allows families to look up all the schools they can attend, while browsing school ratings, test scores, academic programs and more – all in their native language – from that single, easy-to-navigate website.
In addition to language barriers, DPS wanted to remove access barriers that were impacting low-income families. Before adopting SchoolFinder, the tool families used to search for schools was “not mobile-friendly, which presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones,” Eschbacher reported to Chalkbeat. But with SchoolFinder, the family school search experience is completely mobile web-friendly, since nationwide 1 in 5 families rely solely on smartphones for internet access.
Much of the concern that both leaders in Denver and Camden felt was centered around making sure families knew of and understood the initiatives and reforms those school systems were undertaking. And in Oakland, CA, district leaders were also dealing with awareness issues. Over the past few years, the Oakland Unified School District invested heavily in programs to help promote social justice and solve some hard challenges their own families are facing. But if families don’t know about all the district is now offering, how would they ever get help? SchoolFinder was adopted there in part to help create an informed community. And it’s paying off, they’ve measured, because the response rate among families who are applying to participate in school choice has grown from less than 50% to 84% in 2019.
OUSD Executive Director for Enrollment and Portfolio Management Dr. Charles Wilson has seen positive impacts from using SchoolFinder in another way, too. “We’re introducing families to schools they may not have considered,” he explained. The guided search feature of their SchoolFinder is helping to do this. It asks families questions about what’s important to them, like dual language offerings and teaching styles, and SchoolFinder presents all the school options that suit their interests.
Back in Camden, educators have echoed the importance of that same benefit. McCartney explained that they’re helping families to define what a successful school looks like – and that different families may have their own definition. “We believe that a school that’s great for one student may not be the best for another,” she said. “But choosing a school that’s a great fit for a child will set them up for success.” Facts like classroom size or distance to one’s home can make or break a child’s educational experience – and with SchoolFinder, Camden has brought that essential information forward, serving their community with clear information and answers.