Several months ago, Citizen editor Larry Platt posed a question we’ve been wondering about ever since: When was the the last time you encountered the city bureaucracy and said to yourself, “Wow, what great customer service?” Since then, we’ve taken a page from private industry and unleashed a team of mystery shoppers to interact with city service providers and report back on their experiences…the good, the bad, and the disfiguring.
Mystery Shopper Test #30: Applying to a special admit school from a charter school through the School District’s new website
- Logged on to School District website, navigated to Office of Student Selection and Enrollment page.
- Clicked on “Apply Now!!!! Already a District Student.” According to instructions, this would let me simply log in and pick schools; all records are already in the system.
- Clicked on “Parent,” and got to Parent and Family Portal page, where it asks for my student ID. Realized I don’t have a student ID, so hit HELP.
- Got a 404 Error page.
- Started back at the beginning.
- Clicked on “Is Your Student NOT Currently in the Phila School System?” button.
- That took me to a page titled “School Selection Process for Students Who Are Not Currently Attending A School District of Philadelphia School.” Underneath is a button that says “I am a non-School District of Philadelphia student.”
- Am confused until read further, where it lists “charter” among the types of non-District schools. This is enlightening info: Aren’t we always saying charters are publics? Aren’t they governed by the same body, the School Reform Commission, as neighborhood schools? So why isn’t my child considered a “District” student?
- Still, it was clear that I was in the right place, and I began the application process.
- Near the bottom I was asked to upload five documents: Report Cards; Student Data Transcript; Standardized Test Scores; Behavior Records; Attendance Records. All have asterisks next to them, indicating they are mandatory.
- I had only a report card, which includes behavior and attendance records, and a PSSA report—all that was ever needed to apply for special admit middle school. Confused again, I call the district.
- On hold for a pretty short five minutes.
- Friendly district representative answered phone and directed me to the application page. I explained the problem, and she confirmed again that my child, who attends a public charter school in Philadelphia, is not a Philadelphia public school student.
- Representative told me to download the necessary forms, give them to my daughter’s school and then upload them to the site.
- Tried to click on the forms listed, but they are not links.
- The representative took me back to the School District’s homepage again, and we started all over, with the same result. Things went on like this for another five minutes.
- She put me on hold.
- About a minute later, she returned, with her supervisor. He explained that my child is a “public” school student in that she gets public funds, but not a “district” student in that the district doesn’t oversee her school. Again, this is enlightening.
- He said I just need to upload report card and PSSA scores, and leave the other areas empty. In fact, when I try to do that, an error message pops up telling me I must upload documents to all the fields.
- Supervisor tells me to just upload the report card four times. This seems silly, but I comply.
- Uploaded! Can only hope I did right.
- By now, I felt like I needed to return to middle school, in order to just understand how to apply for middle school.
Time Spent: 25 minutes
Result: Eventual success. I sent in the application; now begins the waiting.
Takeaways: Charter schools are not part of the School District, so why do we pretend they are? On the other hand, the District’s new website is an attempt to modernize a vast, unknowable system and make it easier for all people. That has not quite yet happened, but they seem genuinely interested in making it work.
Lightning Bolt Rating:
Mystery Shopper Test #31: Signing up for Solarize Philly
The issue: The Philadelphia Energy Authority, an independent city agency, launched Solarize in April, offering discounted rates on solar installation through the end of October. Since April, 2,000 residents have signed up for assessments, and 72 have signed contracts with one of three local solar energy installers.
- Went to Solarize Philly website.
- Filled out a simple form with name, address and phone number. I get a friendly email back welcoming me to the program.
- The next day, I received an email with a form asking basic questions about my home, how long I plan to stay here, electric usage and for a copy of my bill. Also attached is a photograph of my roof from a Google satellite image, to confirm it’s the right property.
- A Solarize Philly representative also called me, to explain the program and answer any questions. With Solarize, the PEA negotiated lower installation and equipment rates from its vendors, and gives an additional rebate every time 50 people sign a contract to have the work done. The city has been split up into three different installers, one of whom she said would be in touch shortly.
- Three days later, another email introduced me to Solar by Kiss, a local solar installer who will be my service provider.
- Three days later, Gina at Solar by Kiss sent me a friendly welcoming email, and followed up with a phone call to set up an appointment.
- Within a week, Pat from Solar by Kiss came to the house. He explained the program, the process of installing, the cost, and the incentives, which include a lower electric bill and a 30 percent tax credit. He said the company will help us with financing if needed, ensure we get as many discounts as possible, and take care of all the licensing requirements with the city.
- Pat also explained the bummer that is Pennsylvania, which by at least one ranking is 21st among the states for tax incentives and other cost-savings associated with solar energy. We are, Pat explains, a coal state. (New Jersey, on the other hand, ranks 2nd. Jersey residents can actually make money on their solar panels in the first year.)
- Solar by Kiss called once a week for the next six weeks while we dithered—including to tell us that the city has extended the deadline to sign up from September 30th to October 31st.
- When we finally sign a contract, the city has nearly 80 takers on the project.
Time Spent: Six weeks—but they would have done it in 10 days.
Result: Panels will be installed in the early part of 2018.
Takeaways: The city’s efforts, part of a larger push for solar energy and other sustainable efforts, put the idea of solar panels in front of thousands of homeowners. And Solarize runs so smoothly, I could hardly keep up with their attentiveness. That so few signed up is a reflection of a) how expensive it still can be; and b) how backwards Pennsylvania is when it comes to clean energy.
Lightning Bolt Rating: (one star down because of Pennsylvania)