For Boston charters, a record spike in applicants
Applications for Boston charter schools for the upcoming school year have more than doubled, shattering previous records, following the launch of a new online enrollment system allowing families to apply to multiple schools at once.
The 16 charter schools using the online application, including one school in Chelsea, collectively received 35,000 applications for about 2,100 available seats, according to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, which launched the new system. By comparison, those schools received 13,000 applications the previous year, the association said.
The spike in applications, which could sharply decrease the odds for admission, came months after voters statewide overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question that would have accelerated the opening of charter schools to meet pent-up demand in Boston and elsewhere. Charter schools are public institutions, most of which operate independently of local systems.
Most charter schools will be holding their admission lotteries Wednesday when they will be pulling names out of a hat, a spinning barrel, or some other kind of device.
Marc Kenen, the charter association’s executive director, attributed the increase in demand not only to the new online system but also to the publicity surrounding the referendum, which he said enabled charter supporters to educate more families about the benefits of charter schools.
“Coming out of the ballot question campaign and not seeing a decrease in interest is a good sign,” Kenen said. “What is clear: Demand is still robust for our schools.”
But it remains unclear whether more individual students are flocking to charter schools this year, as the numbers suggest at first blush; whether those applying are simply submitting applications to a broader number of schools; or some combination of both.
According to the charter association, about 9,200 individual students submitted applications for next fall, indicating that applicants on average were seeking out three or four charter schools.
It was not possible to compare that number with previous years because neither the charter association nor the state compiled that data.
But a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative suggests that students this year threw their names into the hat at more charter schools than in the past.
That study, which examined enrollment rates for Boston charters that served secondary-school students between 2009 and 2013, found that most students sought seats at just one or two charter schools, although the study noted a slight uptick in multiple applications during that time.
The apparent surge this year in students applying to a larger number of schools mirrors a trend that took place years earlier when many colleges moved to a common online application, making it easier for prospective students to apply to multiple schools at the same time.
Under Boston’s new online system, a drop box lists every charter school citywide that offers the grade level the applicant is seeking. Then, applicants check off as many of the schools as they want.
Previously, applicants would need to find out on their own what charter schools existed and fill out a separate paper application for each one.
Consequently, the odds of getting into a charter school for this fall are 16 to one, though that could vary greatly by grade level. By comparison, the MIT study previously found much lower odds: three or four applicants per seat.
“That is the hard part for me — the realization that the demand far outweighs the capacity. It’s extremely unfortunate,” said Mary Tamer, who oversaw the new online system as director of strategic projects for the association’s Boston Charter Alliance. “I truly feel for the families who will not gain access to schools they wanted for their children.”
Aisha Porcher said she is feeling confident about the upcoming lottery. She is seeking a kindergarten seat for her son and applied to four schools, including KIPP Academy Boston, which her daughter attends. The school gives preference to siblings and Porcher is hoping that will give her son an edge, but she doesn’t know how many other applicants have siblings.
“KIPP is very engaging,” Porcher said. “They pay attention to what my daughter needs to be successful in school, and I want the same for my son.”
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, which opposed the charter-school expansion measure, said he doesn’t put much stock in the new application numbers for the charter schools.
“They have inflated other numbers in the past,” Stutman said. “There is no reason to think this is a better and more accurate documentation.”
He was referring to the often-disputed accuracy of the state-generated wait list numbers for charter schools, which has 10,000 Boston students on it. The tally includes students who applied in previous years and students who could be enrolled at one charter school but are on a wait list for another.
And questions persist about whether there are duplicate names on the wait lists, even as the state has worked in recent years to weed out repetition.
Shannah Varon, executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, which saw applications double, defended the online system.
“I think it has been an overwhelming success,” said Varon, who also heads the Boston Charter Alliance. “I understand that voters have spoken, but we need to put our heads together and find a way to ensure all families have access to high-quality options.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the surge of applications could increase the odds of admission.