Review of the Washington DC Mystery Shopper Program

DC PCSB launched the Mystery Shopper Program in the 2012 school year as part of an initiative under our Open Enrollment Policy and DC Performance Plan.

INITIATIVE 2.3 of the DC Performance Plan: Improve service oversight for students with special needs by implementing a detailed self-study to help schools improve education delivery through reflective practice and implementing audit policies to address issues. Expand mystery shopper program of contacting schools posing as parents of special needs children seeking to apply.

This program has proven so successful as a quality “test” of the system that DC PCSB has continued to use it every enrollment season (December-March) since the pilot. DC PCSB staff posing as parents who are seeking to enroll their child calls the schools. The caller asks several questions about the enrollment process, including questions about enrolling a student with disabilities. If the school answers all questions appropriately, indicating open enrollment for all students, the school has “passed”. When schools give an inappropriate answer, indicating a barrier to open enrollment, a second call is made on another date to see if the first answer was an isolated incident or if a systemic problem could exist. If on the second call another inappropriate answer is given, the school is contacted by DC PCSB and provided an opportunity for re-training on open enrollment. Any school found to be in any way discouraging students from applying or limiting enrollment could be issued a Notice of Concern by DC PCSB. Notices of Concern are taken into consideration during each school’s 5 and 10-year charter review and during the charter renewal process. Notices of Concern are issued with a timeframe for curing the issue before further board action is considered.

In DC, the Mystery Shopper Program has become a useful tool for training schools about how to welcome and connect with parents of children with disabilities in the appropriate and legal ways. The DC PCSB found that their research is helpful to individual schools, and to ensure the credibility of the call-in process, they recorded the names of school staff who answered the calls and noted their responses. Schools were unaware of the exact timing of the calls, but schools were given ample notice to appropriately train their front line office staff who would be answering enrollment questions from parents. DC PCSB emphasizes that this is not a “GOTCHA” process – but an informative, value-add. This is evidenced in the response from school leaders when the DC PCSB provides the results. One school that had received a second round of calls realized that they needed to completely change their staff training and procedures on who answered enrollment calls and have since assigned that duty to an enrollment specialist.

DC PSCB asks for volunteers from their staff and routinely has about 10 staff participate, including the staff members of their Equity and Fidelity Team. The staff callers receive trainings and background in what “special education language” to use in their call scenarios; including using references to terms such as: Individual Education Plan (IEP), disability, high needs, etc. Staff callers are encouraged to use language that they are most comfortable with on their calls. They allow staff callers to create a “scenario” before making calls, determining if the child they are calling about is a daughter, son or child they have guardianship of, etc. DC PCSB provides anonymous cell phones for the Mystery Shopper Program to ensure caller ID does not identify the PCSB as the caller to the school. Through this effort, the DC PCSB was able to provide a detailed analysis of what was truly happening when parents contacted individual schools, in an efficient and straight forward process in order to then work with the schools to ensure that parents receive accurate information.

“This is a really low-cost, effective effort – we have found that it is such an easy test of our system that eventually provides better customer service in our charters,” Naomi Deveaux, District of Columbia Public Charter School Board

(Cross Posted from National Center Special Education in Charter Schools)

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