A new way to enroll students in the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) online raised eyebrows within the service provider community. What was meant to help their vulnerable clients get enrolled in school instead created new barriers for homeless students.
The online enrollment system, developed by PowerSchool, allows families to enroll their children from home using an online web portal.
Required: an internet connection, an email address and proficiency in one of four languages available online — things that members of homeless, low-income, immigrant and refugee communities may not have.
The system, approved in May and open on Aug. 7, may make it easier for internet-fluent families with web access who already conduct much of their formal and informal lives online, be it filling out tax forms or ordering delivery. It certainly makes it easier for the school district, which no longer has to contend with data input from reams of paper forms.
It’s different for those living on the margins, and some of the people who support them are concerned about the speed of the implementation and its potential consequences.
“This should not have been rolled out in the way that it was,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH).
SPS enrolls between 2,000 and 2,500 new students each year. In the past, new enrollments filled out paperwork and submitted it to the district. Employees then entered the data by hand. That produced a lag.
The new system makes that automatic, and allows the district to meet students’ needs more quickly, said Kimberley Schmanke, spokesperson for SPS.
“From the family or student perspective, it’s almost immediate customer service on decisions and services they need,” Schmanke said.
But providers noted problems at a gathering in August to discuss the ins and outs of McKinney-Vento, which, in the context of education services, requires schools to ensure that homeless students receive the same access to learning, educational materials and even extracurriculars as their housed peers.
It also makes it easier for children experiencing homelessness to enroll in school. Homeless families do not have to provide certain paperwork, such as two items proving their address or immunization records.
The new online system is not only difficult to access, it makes none of those protections clear, Eisinger said.
A visit to the SPS website illustrates the process. If a user clicks on “enroll my student” in a drop-down tab on the
homepage, it leads to a page with four live links leading to registration, each in a different language. To access registration, you must create an account on InfoSnap using an email address, and add your student by name and birth date.
The following page says in bold type and all caps “[School] assignment cannot be made without address verification.” Immediately following that sentence, in plain font and normal rules of capitalization is another line creating the exception, “Students identified as homeless are not subject to provide address verification or required documents.”
To find this information outside of the registration system requires you to find the enrollment FAQ page, which is visible on a sidebar on the lower-right-hand side. Then you have to scroll halfway down the page before you find the question that references homelessness.
In short, it’s not easy for a person with limited computer experience to navigate, Eisinger said.
“If your job is to make it easy for kids who are in crisis to come to school, then how is this process working?” she asked.
The district does offer assistance with the form if parents can go to the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence in SoDo, where it has set up eight terminals and has staff to assist. The World School, in Capitol Hill, also has kiosks.
Staff will even type the information into the form for the family, Schmanke said.
However, that level of support is only available in SoDo, and the district otherwise suggests using computers at a public library to enroll children.
Providers who work with families find themselves helping them set up email accounts for the first time so that they can use the system. SKCCH has received many complaints from providers, and concern that what presents a barrier for people already in the system receiving support may be a wall for folks who are not yet connected to services.
“That’s the whole point. The system should be broadly accessible,” Eisinger said.
The district encourages service providers to send families who need extra help to the John Stanford Center, said Faauu Manu, manager of the admissions center, in a statement.
“We have subject matter experts here including the [McKinney-Vento] team to help our families log on to the system, answer their questions about assignment, or checking another choice school for them,” she said.
Problematically, while the rest of the admissions team received training on the new system prior to the rollout, the McKinney-Vento staff did not. They were trained on it two weeks after the new system of enrollment began.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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