The New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) is the largest public school system in the country, and regularly communicates with more families in a month than many school districts do in a year. Innovations in communication or outreach efforts can influence profoundly how families engage with the district, especially innovations in outreach about school application and admissions processes. Getting this outreach right is especially important when it focuses on families’ first required encounter with the school system: kindergarten application and enrollment.
A research-practice partnership between MDRC and NYC DOE that began in 2017 focused on mutual learning using insights from behavioral science and human-centered design to achieve five learning goals related to the kindergarten application process:
- Uncover potential barriers to application for parents using a systematic diagnostic process.
- Capitalize on NYC DOE’s shift to a new digital application platform to identify constraints on outreach and opportunities to innovate.
- Create an evidence-based intervention to encourage on-time application.
- Test intervention effectiveness at NYC DOE’s full scale with a rigorous randomized field trial.
- Apply insights and refine admissions processes in a cycle of learning.
This report discusses study results and lessons learned for each of the five goals, including the importance of active outreach to families and ways to remain connected to families who may need more application support. These lessons can inform policymakers looking to implement similar programs in other districts.