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Apodaca: CdM High's online preregistration a breeze

Journalists don't much like good news. Give me a juicy scandal any day of the week, and I'm in my element.

So it's with a touch of chagrin that I must admit that Newport-Mesa Unified School District's pilot online preregistration project went well. Very well.

Darn.

Let me at least remind you of last year's registration fiasco at Corona del Mar High School, which was a model of DMV-like inefficiency and delayed plane flight-type frustration.

Students and parents appeared ready to storm the administration building after giving up one of their cherished summer days to spend hours in the hot sun wending their way through a labyrinth of long lines and understaffed stations to register for the upcoming school year. Overwhelmed school personnel had that deer-in-the-headlights look as they dealt with a miasma of unexpected problems.

But that was then.

This year, the district decided to test out the new online protocol at CdM and Costa Mesa high schools, Newport-Mesa's two 7-12 grade campuses. Stung by the scathing criticism over last year's debacle, school officials pulled out the stops to ensure that the transition went smoothly.

Much as I disdain filling out online forms, I have to admit the process wasn't bad. Logging in was easy, and everything I'd filled out by hand in the past — health information, emergency contacts and other documents — was presented in an organized and easy-to-follow sequence.

Only the page for purchases of student body cards, gym clothes and other items was a bit clunky, but aside from that, no complaints. I completed the procedure in less than 30 minutes, and only needed to print out a few pages for my son to bring to school at his designated registration time.

Next year the process should be even quicker because the information will be stored, and I'll only need to check for items that require updating.

The day before students were to begin appearing at school to complete their registration, I stopped by CdM's front office. I let Principal Tim Bryan know that I'd be observing the proceedings and would have some questions.

Bryan warned me that he might be too busy putting out fires to talk to me. "No plan survives first contact," he said in a half-joking reference to the military aphorism. Even so, he appeared relaxed and confident that the school had — excuse the pun — done all its homework.

On the first day of registration at CdM, which was designated for juniors and seniors, the scene was a 180-degree turn from last year's chaos: no long lines, no confusing maze of paper-shuffling stations, no lost tempers, no stressed-out staff members.

It went so smoothly that Bryan was able to keep tabs on the situation, greet students and parents, check in with employees and volunteers, and still have time to answer my questions.

When my 16-year-old son walked in, I told him to time how long the entire process took. He called me 20 minutes later, after he'd received his class list, had his picture taken, picked up his student body card, and received his textbooks.

I asked if he'd finished already. "Oh no," he said. "I finished about five minutes ago."

I spoke to George Knights, Newport-Mesa's director of K-12 assessment and professional learning communities, who has helped shepherd the new online system. He told me that at Costa Mesa, which started with the potentially more problematic middle-school registration, the situation was also calm.

Knights said that staff members at both schools had prepared "ad nauseam," and tried to plan for every possible contingency, including what to do in the case of a power outage.

"We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it just didn't," he said.

I asked Knights why it had taken so long for the district to digitize the registration forms. He nodded knowingly, and replied, "Schools are the last to change."

In fact, it was an Irvine parent who got the ball rolling. Several years ago, when her daughter was starting kindergarten, Michelle Sam received a huge packet in the mail stuffed with a pile of redundant paperwork.

"I just thought there had to be a better way," Sam said. So she started an initiative at University High School to computerize the registration system. That system has been adopted by several other schools, and served as the model for Newport-Mesa's project.

Sam agreed that change comes slowly and often grudgingly to public schools, but in this era of slashed budgets, inputting registration information online also means saving money. According to her analysis, electronic preregistration costs schools $7 less per student than the old manual system. For a school the size of CdM, that could add up to nearly $17,000 in savings.

So where to go from here? About 15% to 20% of students at each of the schools didn't complete the online preregistration, so the district will undoubtedly be looking at ways to improve the participation rate. Knights said there would be some fine-tuning to make the system more efficient. He also expects the program will be expanded next year, at least to include the district's other secondary schools.

And that's about as much good news as I can take.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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