CAMDEN, NJ — On Tuesday, a team of five organizers are embarking on a process over six months in the making: helping students in Camden enroll for the 2020-2021 school year.

To be clear, that’s not all 19,000 or so students that make up the school district.

Camden Enrollment's Executive Director, Tameeka Mason, estimates the figure to be closer to 700 students during the main round and up to 10,000 applications for the entire school year.

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Most applicants during this first cycle, which runs until March 31, are toddlers entering the school system for the first time, pre-K students transitioning into Kindergarten, and eighth-graders gearing up for high school.

“The main component that has changed from previous years is the push online,” Mason told TAPinto Camden at The Salvation Army Kroc Center where the non-profit is based. “With most of the world online, a lot of families turn to the internet for information nowadays and our job has been to make sure that the information is clear and accessible.”

Any student that applies during the main round has an equal chance of being admitted to their preferred school among the district’s 52.

The main round results are released on April 28 and the registration deadline is June 5.

How it works

The enrollment period allows parents to explore each of the school’s respective offerings and programs, as well as become contenders in any of the charter or renaissance schools that operate on a lottery system, which students may not qualify for automatically.

The Camden Enrollment hub — although parents can also opt to chat in person, call a hotline or text— provides short videos of each of the schools, basic information like listings of athletic departments, and respective school calendars. 

Parents can also do a quick search for what public school their child has a guaranteed seat for already based on address.

The application asks that parents list eight schools that the student hopes to be admitted to and rank them so that the first is their most preferred.

Mason emphasized that the first school listed on the application is very important, as the other seven will ostensibly be wiped if a student is accepted to the highest school on their list.

If a student is not immediately admitted to their #1 school, they will be sent to the next highest on their list and placed on a waitlist for the higher school — thus ensuring they still have a chance.

Steve Silvasy, the director of data and operations for Camden Enrollment, said that when students submit an application to the site it serves an array of other functions too.

“Some as simple as give a public school a heads up you’re going there the following school year,” said Silvasy.

There are also the priorities.

“We have sibling priority,” he continued, “if a parent wants their child to attend the same school as an older sibling is already attending. And then neighborhood preference, which is a boost in the lottery for applicants aiming to go to renaissance schools near them.”

Silvasy said each year he has seen an approximate 10% increase in applicants and 100 more each year — with students applying for every type of school.

The application also asks that students list if they have a temporary living situation.

“If you’re staying with family, friends or currently in transitional housing, for instance, we ask that you include that,” added Silvasy. “We can get that information to the homeless liaison at the district.”

Five cycles later

Camden Enrollment began as a branch of the Camden County School District (CCSD) -- specifically, as an initiative to replace the special transfers' system.

In 2017, it became a non-profit helping to provide more autonomy. Although parents can use Camden Enrollment, enrolling directly with a school is still a viable option. 

Director of Family Engagement, Soley Berrios, Family Support Specialist, Veronica Ramirez, and Operations Support Specialist, Joey Queen also make up the team.

Mason was gearing up to canvass East Camden on Monday as part of the team’s efforts to get the word out through word-of-mouth and by posting flyers.

When discussing the group’s main obstacle, she said it is, “the narrative of competition between the school sectors.”

“We put a lot of work into staying neutral,” added Mason, “because really our goal is to provide information to help families put their kids in the best position to pursue their goals and ultimately, their careers.”

Berrios also said servicing the Hispanic community has been critical.

Three of the team members are bilingual, and four of the five are Camden-natives.

“I always joke that if you have a Facebook account, you can definitely make a Camden Enrollment profile,” said Berrios. “But sometimes it's just intimidating for some of our families to even think they can conquer that process. So having someone on staff that they already like trust in that environment to walk them through has been helpful.”

Camden Enrollment has hosted information sessions, open houses and other events since the latter half of 2019 to help ease the process for parents.

On Monday, hours before the main round would begin, Mason assured the phone lines were ready to go, the team was briefed and the website was ready.

The starting line was in sight and Camden Enrollment said it was ready.