Charter School Applications: What I Wish I Knew

Back when I was filling out charter school applications for my own children—oh, what I wish I knew then! Somehow I managed to muddle through. Since then, along with our team at the nonprofit and the members of the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group, I have guided a lot of parents and caregivers through the charter school application process. This post is meant to be an introduction that helps soothe some of your fears and gives you tips to increase your chances of a successful application process. Along the way, I’ll share some of my own mistakes so you can learn from me. The goal is for your children to get enrollment offers from at least one school of choice that will be a good fit for them, and they can look forward to a future full of opportunities.

Open Enrollment Public Charter Schools

What does it mean that many of the schools in our guide are open enrollment public charter schools? First, it means that they are tuition-free public schools. Compared to traditional neighborhood public schools, open enrollment charter schools serve students from a wider geographic area, but have a limited number of seats per grade. Parents who want to enroll their children need to fill out a charter school application, sometimes as much as nearly a year in advance.

The good news is that charter school applications are short, simple, and free. They ask for basic information like the student’s name, age, and where they live. Charter schools serve a wide range of students, including students with special needs and English language learners, but the applications don’t ask about those factors. There are no screening tests to enroll at charter schools.

When a charter school gets more applications than they have room for, they hold a random lottery to determine which students get in. The students who don’t get an offer are placed on a waiting list, and those students will get offers as seats open up. Unfortunately, sometimes the waiting lists are overwhelmingly long, and the school year goes by with many students never receiving an offer. The waiting lists don’t roll over; families will need to reapply next year. On the bright side, we have tips for improving your chances of getting an offer of enrollment from a school that will be a good fit.

Application Timeline

The charter school application process follows a general timeline, although the specific deadlines vary from one charter school network to another. Here are some phases to plan for:

  • At 9–12 months before school starts, it’s time for the family to research school options. We recommend using the guide page (with links to enrollment guide blog posts), the mobile app, and the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group, as well as these additional research tools. Develop a short list of appealing schools and make note of their important dates: When does open enrollment start and end? When is the lottery?
  • At 6–9 months before school starts, the family should submit applications to all the charter schools on their wish list during those schools’ open enrollment periods. A typical open enrollment period starts in November and ends the following February, so January is prime time, but watch out for open enrollment deadlines that fall in December, such as BASIS and Great Hearts.
  • At 3–6 months before school starts, the family will get feedback about their applications. Charter schools will hold lotteries and communicate with parents about whether the student received an offer of enrollment or has been placed on a waiting list. Families can continue to gather information about schools and make decisions about whether to accept or decline the enrollment offers. Position on the waiting list may improve as other families who were ahead in line decline their offers.
  • At 3–0 months before school starts, the family has hopefully received at least one offer from a charter school that they believe will be a good fit for their child. They can accept that offer and decline all the other offers of enrollment. It’s time to buy supplies and school clothes, and maybe sign up for a summer readiness camp or after-school care. You made it!

Tips for Successful Charter School Applications

The charter school application process can be stressful because there are so many factors outside our control. The lotteries are random: except for employees’ children and younger siblings of current students, all the applications submitted during the open enrollment period are treated the same and have an equal chance of getting an offer or being waitlisted. There are some factors you can control to put the odds in your favor of reaching your goal—getting your child into a school of choice that is a good fit. Here are some tips:

  • Apply during open enrollment. All of the applications submitted during open enrollment are entered into the lottery. After open enrollment ends, families can still apply, but their students will be added to the bottom of the list. There’s still a chance to get in, but your chances are much better if you apply before the deadline.
  • Apply to more than one school. In fact, applying to 3–5 schools is a good idea. That strategy greatly improves your chances of getting an offer in time for the start of the school year. Keep in mind that you can accept an offer from your second choice school while hoping that your child will move up the waiting list at your first choice school—just be sure to communicate promptly if you are declining an offer.
  • Apply at beginning and transition years, like kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grades. For example, at a public charter school that serves grades K–12, your child’s best chance to enroll is for kindergarten. All of those spots are open, except for employees’ children and younger siblings of current students. It’s harder to get in for first grade because most of those spots will be taken up by kindergarten students who are re-enrolling. Transition years like sixth and ninth grades provide opportunities, too, because some students will be switching schools.
  • Watch for lottery dates and emails, and respond quickly when the school communicates with you. On the lottery date, a public charter school will typically send out a mass email to notify families about their enrollment or waiting list status. Families may also be able to log in to the enrollment portal to check their status. As the waiting list moves and schools make offers, parents need to keep an eye on their email accounts; as the school year approaches, and especially once the school year begins, sometimes schools ask for a quick answer in a day or two. If in doubt, call the enrollment help line or the front desk.

I wish there were some way to guarantee every student a spot at a high quality school of choice. As parents and caregivers, we can all work together to advocate for more school choice options and to improve the quality of education in our community. In the meantime, following these tips will increase the chances that your children will get an offer of enrollment at a school that will be a good fit for them.

What I Wish I Knew

Let me tell you about some of the mistakes I made when I was applying for charter schools for my own children. Learn from me, and you can avoid making these mistakes for your own families.

  • I only applied to one charter school. Right? Silly. My backup plan was to continue homeschooling and reapply each year until we got in. In my defense, San Antonio has a lot more great school choice options now than it did back in 2013. Now, you can visit school fairs (or virtual school fairs) to get to know more schools, and use the resources from our site, which is designed to make your path easier.
  • At the charter school lottery, my son got a disappointing number, and I felt discouraged. I didn’t realize that there would be so much movement on the waiting list as families weighed the pros and cons of enrolling at a new school. Within four months—well before the school year started—my son got an offer of enrollment.
  • I did as much research about the school as I could, but I wish I had done more. I was fortunate to be invited to visit a Great Hearts campus in Arizona before any schools opened in Texas. In hindsight, there was a lot I didn’t know yet about classical education, and I still had a lot to learn about how special education services could help my son, who is on the autism spectrum.
  • The driving force of my school search was finding great academics for my kids, so that they would be challenged and reach their full potential. What I didn’t realize was how important the school community would be in my life. I didn’t foresee the amazing friendships that my kids and I would form, or see myself becoming the leader of the parent organization at school. Those are the beautiful surprises that life holds.

My hope is that you can learn from my mistakes and use the greater resources that are available now. Our team manages the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group to create a place where parents feel safe asking questions about charter school applications. Parenting is hard, and all these changes in our education system add more complexity. As a parent and the leader of San Antonio Charter Moms, I want to help the charter school application process to go smoothly for you, and to guide you to a successful outcome: enrolling your children in schools that are a good fit for them, where they can succeed academically, make friends, feel safe, and look forward to a brighter future.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Inga Cotton, Founder and Executive Director of San Antonio Charter Moms, share what she wish she knew about charter school applications, on Charter Moms Chats on January 14, 2021 at 4 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Read More About Charter School Applications

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Inga Cotton

Parent activist and founder of San Antonio Charter Moms. Raising two children to be independent adults who do good in the world.