Missing from the Start

Engagement in New York City's Kindergarten Application

By Barbara Condliffe, Rekha Balu

When many of today’s parents were students, the process of applying and enrolling in school was fairly simple and involved few choices. In many cases, a family visited the neighborhood public school at the start of the school year and enrolled the child at the school’s office. But now, the proliferation of school-choice policies in districts across the country is turning school selection and enrollment as early as kindergarten into a multistep process that begins long before the school year begins. The confusion associated with this complex process can result in dissatisfaction with and a lack of engagement in the school system among parents. This brief describes lower-than-intended application rates to kindergarten in New York City, as well as differences in those application rates among different types of families and communities.

Parents applying to kindergarten today must follow multiple steps in a specific sequence and on a specific timeline, all while searching for options that fit their needs. Not surprisingly, some families may intend to enroll in school but not complete school applications because they lack essential information or misunderstand the process, among other reasons. Not applying puts families at a disadvantage in the school admission process and creates inefficiencies for school districts that must process late applicants or enrollees.

Pinpointing where and why some families do not apply can help a school system identify aspects of its process that may need simplification or clarification, and can help it target those families or communities most at risk of not completing the process. MDRC partnered with the New York City Department of Education Office of Student Enrollment to conduct this sort of diagnosis and description of pathways to kindergarten enrollment. The partnership focused on kindergarten because it is when many families first encounter school application and selection processes. An analysis of application and enrollment data for New York City public school students entering kindergarten for the 2016-2017 school year shows the extent to which families miss application opportunities at the starting gate to the largest school district in the United States. Furthermore, the analysis shows that some communities and populations miss these opportunities more than others. This brief describes the patterns identified in New York City and in so doing provides a model for how other school systems could use their application and enrollment data to improve their processes and outreach.

Condliffe, Barbara and Rekha Balu. 2019. “Missing from the Start.” New York: MDRC.