The Value of a Good Service Experience for School Admissions

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
March 23, 2015

I have lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, for almost ten years. My now-husband and I moved here primarily for easy access to Manhattan and Brooklyn, which are a quick train ride away. But we also saw much potential in this second-largest city in New Jersey. While the neighboring metropolis dwarfs Jersey City, our city has its own respectable share of restaurants and bars; plus we appreciated its arts and culture. We’ve created roots and friendships here and, in 2009, plunged into home ownership, making a commitment to stay in Jersey City for a while.

Now, in 2015, Jersey City has a new mayor who is making the city even more of a destination, in an attempt to encourage residents of New York City to consider a move here. Jersey City was previously reputed to be unfriendly to new businesses and developers, but has revamped its processes and offered financial benefits to encourage investment. A new condominium or business building seems to open every six months, and the City exhibits an energy that was lacking when we first moved here.

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In addition to encouraging new residents to move here, Jersey City wants to keep current residents here longer. As with most urban areas, there is a tendency for families to move to the surrounding suburbs where they’ll have more space and, often, a stronger public-education system. So Jersey City is trying to stem the exodus of resident families by making education options—both public and private—appealing to parents, in the hope that everyone will want to stay—especially during their children’s early-childhood school years. But, while parents now have more education options than ever before, the result is a complicated education system that causes anxiety and confusion.

In this column, I’ll first provide some background on the customer base—residents of Jersey City—and the educational landscape in Jersey City and its consequent complexities, then I’ll go into more detail about the experience of interacting with its preschools—focusing specifically on the registration and admissions process.

The Evolving Parent-Customer in Jersey City

Jersey City’s demographic was historically lower to lower-middle income, comprising a mix of ethnicities. While there is still considerable diversity throughout Jersey City, the demographic has shifted dramatically to middle and upper-middle class, college-educated professionals, especially in the downtown region. With that shift comes higher expectations for education and significantly more vocal and more involved parents. Clearly, lower-income families also want the best for their children. I’m not suggesting that families with lower incomes won’t champion their children and push for improved schools. But their expectations tend to differ: lower-income families want their kids to graduate from high school and find a good job, while higher-income families expect nothing less than college and a career. Are there exceptions to these personas? Of course, there always are. But when you consider the persona for the parent-customer in Jersey City, these two demographics represent a dichotomy that realistically reflects the market to which the education system is catering.

The Competition

Just as the parent-customer is evolving in Jersey City, so do the educational options. As a new business or condo opens every few months, new private schools are appearing as alternatives to public schools. Currently, there are dozens of options for parents of preschool-aged children—from Montessori schools, to Scandinavian curriculum-based schools, to religion-affiliated schools.

While all of these public- and private-school options have their unique approaches and benefits, the most blatant difference has nothing to do with curriculum or scheduling, but cost. The private schools cost $15,000–$25,000 per year; the public preschools are free. Jersey City is part of the Abbott Program, a government-funded initiative whose intent is to give young children a head start on education in lower-income areas. Therefore, public preschools are available to all preschool children in Jersey City at no cost to their parents.

Capacity and the Importance of Your Local School

However, while you may be thinking, Well, let’s sign our kids up for free, public preschool, there is a catch. With Jersey City’s ever-increasing population—especially downtown—there are capacity issues at the public preschools. This means that, to fulfill the Abbott Program’s mission of early-childhood education for all, the school system has to subcontract child-care centers and use larger school buildings for these students. Therefore, if the school zone in which you live cannot accommodate your child, either you’ll have to drive him or her to school or your three- or four-year-old child will be bussed to the school to which he or she is assigned. As you can imagine, parents find the process of public-school registration fraught with anxiety, and all of the above-mentioned considerations weigh heavily on them. On top of everything else, Jersey City’s process for public-preschool registration was neither clear nor easy, exacerbating their stress.

The Public School Process: 2014

Last year, the public school–registration process literally became the talk of the town, and no parent could remain outside the fray. Whether it was at the park, on the street, on an active Meetup site, or via email, vocal parents were discussing the process and wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Awareness of the Process

One of the first issues with the process readily became evident: before parents could take any steps to begin the registration and admissions process, they had to understand what to do, but no one seemed to understand what the process was. Here are some of the quotations from parents on the JC Moms Meetup site, which illustrate parents’ general attitude about the need to simply understand what they’re supposed to do to register:

  • “Is there anyone out there that would be interested in having an information seminar for JC Moms about how to translate and negotiate information regarding the public school system?”
  • “Hi—I would be interested as well! It seems overwhelming to try and navigate all the options, what is available—public, private, etc.—based on where you live.”
  • “Though I read all the school system–related posts, it’s all a confused mess in my head.”
  • “I’m especially interested in learning about the public-school admissions process, as this seems to be more involved, less clear cut, as well as constantly changing.”

Over time, parents posted what they had learned—by calling the schools and talking to each other—on the Meetup site, and it became the go-to resource for information about the admissions process instead of the school district itself or any of its sites.

Admissions Policy

The most dramatic issue that arose during the process was the inconsistent communications about whether admissions were on a first-come, first-served basis—meaning the earlier you registered, the more likely your child would be admitted. Some parents called the schools and were told that admissions were not first come, first served, but a few hours later, someone else would hear the opposite.

Remember, capacity is an issue at the schools. So, last year, up until the very first day of registration, parents were emailing and posting online about whether the process was first come, first served. The result was a very large crowd of parents and children on the first day of registration—all of whom were on edge because of this lack of clarity. Parents finally learned the correct answer: admissions were not first come, first served. However, the damage had been done: parents were confused, stressed, and annoyed by having to show up on the first day of admissions when, ultimately, the timing did not matter.

Paperwork  + Toddler + Time = Chaos

Parents’ other complaint about the process was that they had to complete many types of paperwork, in a certain order, while also entertaining their child, who the schools required to be present during registration. According to some parents, the process took two to three hours on that first day of registration, and they had not prepared for the long wait by bringing snacks or toys for their child. Since parents were already on edge because of the issues leading up to this point, the long wait with a toddler in tow just added to their poor experience.

Lottery System

One important topic that I have not yet introduced is the concept of a lottery system for school registration. When schools don’t do admissions on a first-come, first-served basis, the alternative is to collect all registrations, then review each school’s capacity and determine whether they have enough space. If not, they hold a lottery, giving each child a random number. If a child’s number is selected, he or she is admitted; if not, the child goes on a wait list. The lottery approach is another angst-laden experience for parents:

  • Is a lottery necessary, or is there sufficient space?
  • When will it occur?
  • Do you have to be present?
  • If you’re not there, when will you find out whether your child was accepted?

In 2014, during admissions for the 2015 school year, all downtown schools required a lottery. This was the first year that a lottery was ever necessary. Unfortunately, parents received only two days’ notice to attend the lottery drawing via a mailed letter, which some parents did not receive. One mom posted, “Wait, I’m so confused. Is there also a lottery for PS5 Pre-K 4? Nicole, you mentioned that. I didn’t receive a letter or anything. Ugh! I’m so exhausted with this process. Hannah is going to show up the first day of school and, if they send her home, whatever. I give up.”

Parents who didn’t attend the lottery in April wouldn’t know whether their child was accepted until mid-June, when notifications went out about assignments to schools. To add even more complexity and anxiety, if your child was wait-listed, you might not find out about his or her acceptance until much later in the summer—or even after the start of the school year. By law, the schools are required to hold a place for a child unless parents decline admission in writing. Because many parents fail to do so, the schools do not know for sure what spots are available until two weeks after the start of the school year, when a school can consider a child an absentee for not showing up. Until then, the parents of wait-listed children do not know whether their child will be admitted.

Proposed Improvements for 2015

As an experience designer witnessing these trials and tribulations from the sidelines, I wanted to help improve the process for 2015, when I would need to register my own child. So I contacted the President of the Board of Education, and she and I met to discuss what I could do to help. I offered to do a survey, but as expected, most of the findings were pretty consistent with all the chatter I’d heard throughout the 2014 process.

I asked respondents to summarize their experience in one word. The most common words were disorganized, confusing, and stress; one even said harrowing.

In answer to my question about what the school administrators could improve, the most common responses were

  • better and more consistent communications with parents
  • forms available online prior to registration
  • employee training on the process to enable consistency
  • transparency around capacity and the process
  • more notice about the lottery date

One of the more telling comments, however, had nothing to do with the survey questions or the registration process. I asked whether survey respondents would be willing to give their contact information and receive a quick, 30-minute, follow-up call if we required more information. One respondent said, “Why? Nothing will change,” showing apathy and a lack of trust in the public-school system.

My Personal Experience with Public-School Registration

Because I am familiar with last year’s cumbersome process, I may not be the best person to assess this year’s experience. But setting aside that bias, I can say that the school system has improved the experience considerably.

They provided downloadable paperwork for parents to complete before registering, addressing one of the big sticking points for parents. They offered numerous information sessions about registering, led by the head of the early childhood department, during which parents could ask any questions and gain clarity. They were resolute in their decision that the admissions policy would not be first come, first served, which eliminated the frustration of the previous year’s uncertainty.

Here’s what happened on the day I chose to register:

  • At the start of registration at 9 am, I approached the security guard, who gave me a Post-it with the number three on it and told me to wait in the Auditorium behind her. The numbers parents received indicated the order in which the administrative staff would see them.
  • After I’d waited a few minutes, a woman came into the Auditorium and distributed a brief document, plus some additional paperwork. The document explained the process the administrative staff would follow that morning and reiterated the requirements—for example, immunization records and proof of residence.
  • After 10 to 15 more minutes, they called Parent #1 into the main office.
  • After five more minutes, they called my number. I was Parent #3.
  • Three people were helping in the main office, which helped to expedite the process. A staff member confirmed that I had the right paperwork and asked me for a few more pieces of information, then instructed me to go back to the Auditorium to meet with the nurse.
  • The nurse, who was following the same process with the numbered Post-its, called #2 as I re-entered the room.
  • She called me within five minutes, and meeting with the nurse took another five minutes.

The entire registration process took about an hour, which felt quick because the staff clearly communicated what would happen and when, and the queue was a fair and transparent process. Overall, I had no complaints about this year’s process. It was very clear that the schools had learned from the previous year’s experience and implemented many of the recommendations from parents.

The Importance of Timing

While the content of this column has focused on public preschools, parents who are considering private preschools go through a different registration and admissions process for those schools. After going through the registration and admissions process for each of these public and private schools, parents must make a decision. Even after they’ve weighed the obvious options for the various schools—such as cost, curriculum, scheduling, and location—one important consideration almost makes the decision for them: timing.

Private-school admissions processes occur during the fall and winter, and they want a commitment and several thousand dollars in payment by March or April. The public-school process doesn’t start until March, and the earliest parents may find out their child’s fate is in April—or at worst, later in the summer if their child is wait-listed. So, what many parents do is give a deposit to a private school—one that’s not refundable—then wait to make a final decision until the public-school process has finished. Often, these parents end up deciding to send their child to the private school—just because they don’t want to lose several thousand dollars.


As with any other service experience, it is critical that you set and meet customer expectations if an experience is to be a good one for customers. It’s essential that you communicate what you’re going to do, when you’ll do it, and how you’ll fulfill that commitment. Managing parent-customer expectations and communicating clearly about something as sensitive as preschool education further elevates the importance of doing this successfully.

But here’s something to keep in mind: we all endure frustrating experiences because the product that we get as a result more than makes up for that frustration. In the case of a school registration and admissions process, the product is your child’s education. So even more important than whether the administrative staff provides a consistent understanding of their admissions policy and distributes the paperwork beforehand is that your preschool-aged child be happy, safe, and learning. So, when I speak with the parents of children¬†attending either private and public preschools about their satisfaction with their decision, they always seem magically to forget the cumbersome administrative steps that led to their child’s first day at school. All vehemently declare how much their child loves school, which, after all, is the most important metric. 

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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