Family Engagement in Camden City’s Unified Enrollment System

Camden Enrollment Support | SchoolMint

We sat down to interview Shirley Irizarry and Tameeka Mason of Camden Enrollment, which has partnered with SchoolMint to develop a citywide school enrollment system and school chooser tailored to the city’s needs.

Camden Enrollment’s unified enrollment system includes all public and charter schools in Camden, NJ, and Shirley and Tameeka lead family outreach for the system. They manage a hotline and multiple enrollment centers in the city which provide support for families and run several events throughout the year.

SchoolMint: Congratulations on a successful launch of Camden Enrollment last year! How did you approach family outreach in the first year?

Camden Enrollment: Our #1 priority is to always focus on the family, and their needs, to help them find the best school to fit their student. We listen, we affirm, and we listen some more. We also focus on establishing great partnerships so that there are other channels of support throughout the community. It’s important to build relationships with schools, community organizations, and other non-profits. So if a family goes to a community organization, and their staff is also trained, they can direct the family to our hotline or enrollment center. We also work with a great parent advocacy group here called Parents for Great Camden Schools (PGCS).

Finally, we also focus on empowering our families. We set up a group called the Parent Champions. We invite any parents who are involved in their community or in their schools and want to be more invested. We meet once a month and get their feedback on various policies and also give them information on any new areas of interest. Recently, we held a session with them on our School Information Cards. We explained the data and answered their questions, and now they can go out and share that information with other families in their networks.

SM: What have been the most effective techniques or strategies that you have used to support families?

CE: The hotline and enrollment centers have been very effective. We received more than 5000 calls on the hotline this year! About 1 in 5 applicants overall worked with our team on their application. We have “family enrollment guides” or FEGs who work to support families on the hotline and at the centers. We make sure we have bilingual FEGs so we can support everyone. Above all, it’s the personal approach – when they contact us, there’s a real person who understands and empathizes with them and provides 1:1 support. And we follow through. If we can’t help them right away, we make sure to get them an answer within 24 hours. That helps us establish trust with families.

SM: In addition to supporting families through the application, how did you raise awareness about Camden Enrollment in the first year?

CE: To get the word out more broadly in Camden, we also implemented a “Choose Camden” campaign last year to highlight all of the amazing things happening in our schools across the city. This year, to go along with the Choose Camden campaign, we are creating a series of one pagers titled “Why I chose my school” that highlight features of individual schools from a student perspective. We’ve found social media has been very effective to share these materials and spread the word. We have the enrollment centers and hotline, but we also think about all the other ways that families hear about things in their community.

We also target students in transition grades. In addition to our citywide school fair, this year we are also hosting a high school exploration fair for 8th graders in Camden to give them more information on their high school choices. And we’re partnering with preschool programs to engage with parents of students who will transition from PK to Kindergarten. We also hire enrollment outreach representatives who will do door-to-door canvassing and phone-banking to get the word out.

SM: When you hire people to do outreach or staff your hotline and enrollment centers, what do you look for?

CE: We look for experience in working with families and communities similar to Camden. We need folks who are experienced in customer service and data tracking. But most importantly it’s the mindset: we are looking for people who want to collaborate and help families. We want this to be a level playing field for all families and all schools.

We do role plays in interviews and as part of training for new staff. For example, in an interview for a hotline staff member, the role play might be a phone call coming into them. We give them a script to follow. We run through the role play once, and give them feedback, and then we give them another shot. That way we can see if they can adapt to feedback. At the end of the day, we want to provide top-notch customer service.

SM: Is there anything you’re changing in year 2 in response to parent feedback?

CE: On the school chooser we are adding a second way to search for schools. In addition to the general search, we will add a guided search process. The guided search will ask parents questions about what’s most important to them – for example, is it more important that that the school is closer to their house, or that their kids remain together at the same school? And then it guides them through the best choices for them.

SM: What motivates you to work on Camden Enrollment?

CE: I myself [Tameeka] went to Camden schools and when I was in 8th grade, I didn’t want to go to either of the two comprehensive high schools. At that time we didn’t have many choices. I ultimately went to the medical arts-themed high school – but to make that happen, my mom had to go from school to school to find out the application process and deadlines for each of them. So I know firsthand how this process makes it easier for families. But it’s even more powerful than that. It’s changing the mindset! We’re targeting preschool parents to think about their school options even before their child enters kindergarten so they are empowered to contribute to their kids’ academic career.

My [Shirley’s] daughter is a freshman in Camden this year and I had made up my mind that she would just stay at her current school. But she convinced me that she wanted to pursue another school. She presented the options to me herself. And I’m seeing other students do the same thing. They’re calling our hotline and asking us questions! It really is a whole mindset shift.

Just yesterday we had a student who called in. Camden High School might be having some changes and he wanted to know about his other options. We signed him and his mother up for text alerts so they would know about future deadlines and open houses.

That’s why we’re in this role – not just to have a job. I’m excited about the different options. I’m excited about families being engaged and empowered. And I’m really excited about the students getting into a school they love. I’m not going to say that we don’t hear negative things – I’ll be honest, there have been tears shed. But we just take each family one at a time and focus on their needs. I [Tameeka] take every case personally. I’m a Camden girl. I went to Camden schools. I can relate to the families. For me, it’s important that every student is in a school that they want to be in, that they’re safe and happy and it’s addressing all their needs so they can excel. And if the student is happy, then parents are happy, and then the whole family can progress.

SM: Thank you so much for your time, Tameeka and Shirley! Where can people find out more about your outreach resources?

CE: On the Family Corner section of our website, we have information about events we host for families, and some of the outreach videos we put together last year. You can also follow us on Twitter @CmdnEnrollment or on Facebook here.

Key Takeaways:

  • Listen, empathize, and always follow through quickly with a response to families who call your hotline or walk into your enrollment center. Empathy and responsiveness help to build trust with families who may not have had good experiences in the system previously.
  • Hire staff who can relate to families and deliver top-notch customer service. Your outreach staff will be the face of your system, and it’s important that they are skilled at listening to families and meeting them where they are.
  • Develop strong partnerships with schools and community organizations so that they can also refer families to your hotline and centers. Many families will hear about your system through other channels so you want those channels to be informed.
  • Simplifying the process can do more than just expand access; it can empower. The Camden Enrollment team is seeing parents and students taking more control over their educational career.