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Kindergarten admissions to head online, with link to charter app

Parents applying for spots in kindergarten across the city next year will be able to complete the process online through what Department of Education officials today called a “transformative” change to the enrollment process.

The changes also include the beginning of a long-term project to integrate charter school admissions into the city’s general enrollment process.

The new, online kindergarten admissions system will affect the parents of the more than 70,000 students entering kindergarten this year, reducing the hassle associated with applying to multiple schools. The city called it an effort “to make enrollment more family friendly.”

“Right now, parents must go from school to school to school, submitting applications at each school in order to apply to multiple schools, and that really is something we don’t want to have happen to our parents,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said at a press conference today after an appearance at the Peck Slip School, which like many downtown Manhattan schools had a wait list for kindergarten this year.

“So if you’re a single parent, and you’re balancing a job and a child, this is something we want to definitely avoid,” Walcott said. “It’s really tough for parents, whether you’re single or not.”

The new site, called Kindergarten Connect, will centralize the process, making it similar to the online pre-kindergarten and gifted and talented admissions systems. It replaces the previous paper-based application process with two options: Complete a step-by-step online process that allows parents to provide their child’s information and rank school choices, or apply over the phone. The phone option will be especially important for non-English-speaking parents, since the website will initially be available in English only.

Stephanie Stewart, who is pregnant and has a daughter at I.S. 171 in East Harlem, said she’d welcome the change. “My first daughter is 13, and I never had the chance to do that online,” she said. “For for this one on the way, I’d love to. It would save a lot of time, and you can get them registered earlier.”

The city wants to pay $800,000 to Vanguard Direct, the company that built the city’s existing student enrollment system, to build the full kindergarten admissions site. That contract, which includes other changes to city enrollment processes, is up for approval next Thursday and says that parents will be able to apply to pre-K over the phone this year as well.

The contract details, which the department released today, signal that other changes to the way the city handles school admissions are coming.

Today, officials said that the admissions site available in January will link to the charter school common application, which allows parents to apply for seats in multiple charter schools at once. A department spokesman said the only connection between the applications will be the link, and the applications themselves will remain separate for now.

But the Vanguard contract describes the goal of a more closely aligned process. The first and second phase “will link both applications and incorporate data collection fields” from interested families, and a third phase “will fully integrate charter school options into the Kindergarten online application; families will be able to see and rank all district and charter choices.” The city is looking to spend $400,000 — half the cost of creating the full kindergarten enrollment process — on unifying the admissions systems.

The contract also includes hundreds of thousands of dollars for changes to the city’s middle and high school enrollment systems. For the high school system, the changes bring the system into line with a recent policy change to require selective schools to meet enrollment targets for certain high-needs students.

One thing the online kindergarten application won’t change is the time it will take the city to assign students, said Rob Sanft, chief executive of the Department of Education’s Office of Student Enrollment. “The timeline will be roughly equivalent, but it will give parents access to apply in one place to all of the district schools, and our goal is to work with the charter schools to provide parents a level of information and access in the site as well,” he said. Future versions of Kindergarten Connect, with an integrated directory of schools, will include charter school information.

The current kindergarten application process requires parents to physically submit an application and documents that prove a child’s age and address to each school they apply to. For most parents, that is simply their zoned school, making the extensive ranking system that the admissions site will allow less important. (The city piloted the online system last year in districts 1, 7, and 23 where there are no zoned schools.)

But even though parents will be able to rank up t0 20 schools when they apply to kindergarten, the new system won’t actually give families more options. It does not change what students are eligible for admission to specific schools, and the site will provide some information about eligibility to prevent parents from applying to schools their children can’t attend, officials said.

This spring, 2,361 students were placed on wait lists at schools where there were more zoned applicants than spaces, but most of the time those students end up being able to attend as others move to charter schools and specialized programs. Scott Stringer criticized those “fictional” wait lists in a 2011 letter also calling for online kindergarten admissions.

“Frankly we have a number of very high-quality zoned schools that don’t necessarily fill in each of the districts — in some districts that may not be the case but in other districts it is — and it will open those schools up to parents interested in schools other than their zoned school right now,” Sanft said.

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