After decades of what critics called an unfair enrollment system that favored well-off families who could camp out for days to get priority admission, 1,700 parents applied online for Memphis schools during the first hour on Monday.

That includes Shelby County Schools’ most popular “optional” schools that have academic requirements for admissions and any school that a student is not zoned to attend. By 5:30 p.m. Monday, parents submitted about 5,400 applications.

For decades, critics have argued the enrollment system allowed families with resources to jump to the head of the line outside the district’s central office days before the application window opened, while parents with low incomes did not have the resources or job flexibility to leave work to gain admission to their chosen school.

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Tents line the grounds outside of Shelby County Schools’ central office in 2016 in Memphis, where parents have camped out every January for decades to apply for select optional schools. The application process moved completely online in 2018.

School board members warned a year ago that the same inequities that blocked parents with inflexible schedules from camping out and getting priority in school applications would not be fully solved by the change. But they did applaud the technological update in the system.

The district still uses the same approach that it has in years past: Eighty percent of slots are filled on a first-come, first-served basis and 20 percent are chosen through a lottery. For any other school transfer, all applications are first-come, first-served.

About 60 percent of the district’s students come from low-income families. Many of those parents work more than one job and don’t have computers or Wi-Fi, or the flexibility to complete the time-sensitive application early. The district has attempted to mitigate those stressors by having computers available for parents at schools and its central office, and making the website friendlier for cellphones.

A few minutes before the online application window opened Monday, six parents and caregivers were at a computer in the district’s central office to grab one of the first spots.

To prepare for the application, Britney Tucker talked to other parents and looked at school statistics on the district’s scorecard, also in its second year. The scorecard offers state data on Memphis-area schools including test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, ACT scores, and other factors like attendance and suspension rates.

Tucker recently moved and had not heard good things about the school in her new neighborhood. She doesn’t own a computer and isn’t currently working, so she went to the district’s central office to apply to three schools for her three children.

“I want a school with better teachers and not a lot of bullying,” she said. “I want the best school for my kids.”

Destiny Ross’ son attends the private Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, but the teaching assistant is enrolling him in district schools for the first time. The network is closing and handing over operations to a new charter organization that plans to open six schools in the fall.

The quality of the curriculum was the most important factor for Ross, and she had already toured the three schools she wanted by the time she applied Monday.

“If I’m leaving my child with you, I need to know they are in good hands at all time,” she said. The online application was simple she said, but took longer than she expected because she was trying to avoid sharing her son’s ethnicity, which is required on the application.

The priority window closes at 11:59 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1 for optional schools and Feb. 28 for all other transfers. For more information, visit the district’s website.