NYC Schools Find Changing Processes Can Be Messy

Process change is not always easy, a lesson learned recently by admissions officials of the New York City schools system. According to The New York Times:

This year, Schools Chancellor
Joel I. Klein has streamlined and centralized the dizzying array of admission procedures for the city’s pre-kindergartens and middle schools. He said his goal was to equalize the process, saying that the vast number of individual applications and deadlines made it impossible to know if parents were being treated fairly.

But with the changes have come snags. Children who were supposed to receive the greatest preference for a pre-kindergarten spot because a sibling attended the school were rejected. At some schools, children who lived within the school’s zoned area were rejected in favor of those who lived outside it, the opposite of what was supposed to happen.

Education Department officials said the problems arose either because parents made mistakes in filling out a new standardized form, or because the algorithm to assign siblings to the same school did not take twins and triplets into account. After receiving dozens of complaints, officials combed through 9,000 applications and concluded that the problems were limited to roughly 200 cases, which they said would be corrected. But some city lawmakers and parents say they believe the problems are more widespread.

Middle school admissions notifications have been delayed, leaving parents frustrated and unable to plan for next year, especially if their children do not get their first choice.

Let me interject here that I have a real problem with officials blaming parents for making mistakes in filling out the form. I would bet money that the problem is the form, not the parents.

Getting back to the bigger story, I don’t want to suggest that centralization of the admissions processes was necessarily a bad idea. As the story makes clear, there are valid reasons for the effort.

For years, schools with pre-kindergarten programs — there are 23,000 spots for the next school year citywide — ran their own admissions, largely first come first served. At the most popular schools, parents would line up for hours; there were often-repeated tales of parents sleeping on the sidewalk overnight to get a coveted slot.

This year, a priority was set: siblings, children living in the school’s designated zone, those in the wider neighborhood district, then those outside the district. Parents had to fill out one form and mail it to a data processing center in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Sciabarra hinted that because of the problems, the department may backtrack on its plan to adopt the same system for kindergarten next year. Still, she defended the goal of centralizing admissions in general.

“One of the reasons we decided to go this route is because not all parents had the same access to certain schools because registration was done differently at different times — the equity of access is a very big issue for us,” she said. “None of us had any sense of how many kids got turned away.”

How could this have been done better? Would application of lean approaches have reduced the number of problems? I’m not sure of the answer, but I can’t help but suspect a better understanding of the processes up front, and perhaps better mapping might have made the transition a bit easier. What are your thoughts?

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