Some parents cried for joy. Others shed tears of sorrow as they crammed a hearing room for the most competitive lottery in the history of New Haven magnet schools.
The occasion wasn’t the set of Waiting for Superman, though you could be excused if you were confused. It was the annual lottery to get into New Haven’s magnet and charter schools. A whopping 9,333 students applied for 2,677 open seats at 29 schools covering grades pre-K to 12.
Most parents will learn their children’s fate through letters set to arrive home early next week, or by calling the magnet registration office.
Some 170 parents wanted to find out in person. So they showed up at 10 a.m. Tuesday to the second-floor hearing room of Board of Ed headquarters at 54 Meadow St.
Ed Linehan (pictured), who created the city’s magnet school program in 1996, has returned from retirement to help guide the lottery. Parents who showed up Tuesday had applied, either online or in paper, to their top three choices. The lottery includes five charter schools and two major high schools that accept kids from other neighborhoods. The rest are magnet schools—public schools, organized around an academic theme, that accept students only by lottery. New Haven has 17 interdistrict magnet schools, which serve kids from surrounding towns and get state money to add staff and beef up the curriculum. The other magnet schools, which don’t get state money, accept kids from all across New Haven.
In a district with so many schools of choice, the lottery determines whether a student can go to the school down the street—and whether parents will have to scramble to find another pre-K option before fall. Before running the lottery, Linehan warned that there are “no guarantees”—students can get into a school only if there is an open seat in that grade level.
Seats are assigned by a computer using a randomly assigned number. Those choices were not made before Tuesday, Linehan assured the crowd.
“The lottery is for real. It’s happening now.”
With those words, Linehan pushed a button on a laptop computer hooked up to a projector.
Parents watched with rapt attention as the number of available seats in each school flashed before their eyes and their students’ random numbers were assigned to those seats.
The computer system first runs through all the students’ first choices for open seats, Linehan explained. In the schools with neighborhood preference, which now includes Amistad Academy, students who live nearby get first priority. Next priority is given to students who already have siblings at the school.
If two students have equal standing in neighborhood and sibling status, the one with the lower randomly assigned number will snag the seat.
After the system fits as many kids as possible into their top choices, it assigns students to their second and third choices. If there aren’t any available seats, kids will be put on up to three wait lists, depending on the number of schools they applied to.
The lottery took no longer than two minutes. Then came the long wait—about 20 minutes—for the district to print out the results.
“Some of you will be pleased. Some of you will be disappointed,” Linehan cautioned. “And we’ll be here to take the slings and arrows.”
Parents then stood into three long lines based on their last names to learn their children’s fate.
“She got in!” declared Kattie Konno-Leonffu as the magnet office staffer handed her the news at 11 a.m.
Konno-Leonffu (at left in photo) of Branford was one of thousands of suburban parents vying for spots in New Haven schools. (The lottery also includes ACES - Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School, which is over the town line in Hamden.) A total of 3,749 applications came from the suburbs; 5,584 came from the New Haven residents.
Konno-Leonffu’s daughter snagged a spot in the 5th grade at the Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School on Kimberly Avenue.
Many other out-of-towners were vying for spots in the city’s nine free pre-K programs, often because their towns don’t offer free alternatives. Suburban parents snag half of pre-K spots in New Haven magnet schools, according to data released by the district at parent activists’ request.
Linehan noted that in the lottery, there are more seats set aside for New Haven parents than for out-of-towners. In the city’s 17 interdistrict magnet schools, two thirds of spots go to New Haveners, one third to the suburbs. Many other schools, including Amistad and John Martinez, are just for New Haven families.
One of those New Haven parents, Melissa Jones (pictured at the top of this story), smiled wide as her two eldest children got into pre-K and first grade at Beecher Museum School of Arts & Sciences Interdistrict Magnet. The school is closer to her house than is Wexler/Grant, where her kindergartener goes, she said, and she likes the “school atmosphere.” She said she hopes the school provides a “better opportunity” for her kids.
The day was emotional not just for parents but for a handful of students who took the day off from school to learn their fates. One boy left in tears.
Emily Wilson and Lincoln Wilson, Jr. (pictured) headed out to celebrate at IHOP.
The siblings, who live in Fair Haven, go to Conte/West Hills. Emily, a clarinetist, got into 6th grade at Betsy Ross, where she looks forward to a rich arts curriculum.
“My school doesn’t have much to do with the arts,” she explained.
Lincoln is headed to Common Ground High School, an environmental-themed magnet abutting West Rock Park. Lincoln said he was attracted by the school’s working farm, the environmental curriculum, and the farm-fresh food.
Since the city rolled out its first magnet school in 1996, nearly all of its 11 high schools have shifted to magnet models. Only James Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross remain as traditional, comprehensive schools. Students are sent to one or the other based on where they live; they can choose to switch by applying through the magnet lottery.
Still Hope For Christopher
Monica De La Cruz and Cristobal Gutierrez (pictured) met with confusion Tuesday as they tried to get their 4-year-old, Christopher, into the school across the street from their house, John S. Martinez Magnet School on James Street.
Christopher already goes to Martinez for pre-K; he’s been there for two years. They said they chose the school because he has had a good experience there—and it’s so close to home.
When they got to the head of the line Tuesday, they learned their child was put on the “wait list.”
The pair, who speak Spanish, didn’t understand at first. Then they gathered that their child was not chosen.
“I’m sad,” said De La Cruz in Spanish. “I wish he could have gotten in.”
They were surprised in part because Martinez gives preference to neighbors, and they live so close by.
After they left, Linehan explained that Christopher didn’t automatically get into kindergarten because the pre-K he attends isn’t technically part of the magnet school. It’s run by Head Start. So kids who want to continue to kindergarten have to reapply.
Then Linehan offered some extra info that may reverse their fate: He said at Martinez, one of the two 26-student kindergarten classes is reserved for Spanish-dominant speakers. Because the lottery doesn’t sort students by the language they speak, only one class gets filled by the lottery. Twenty-six seats remain for Spanish-speakers like Christopher—with preference given to kids who live nearby.
De La Cruz wasn’t the only one who struggled to follow the English-only instructions given Tuesday. While one of three magnet office staffers did speak Spanish, only the people with names from I to P were assigned to that line.
Linehan later apologized that the district did not offer translation services. “That would’ve been the right thing to do.”
Strike 3 For Saidan
Eliza Halsey, who’s become an expert on New Haven pre-school admissions as the leader of a new parent group, still found herself out of luck Tuesday.
For the third year in a row, Halsey (pictured) found her daughter, Saidan, relegated to a wait list at Davis Street School.
Halsey, who lives in the Hill, tried twice to get her daughter into pre-K at magnet schools when Saidan was 3 and 4 years old. Both times, Saidan remained on the wait list while suburban kids got in. She then hustled to determine what her other options were. She found the system difficult to navigate—even for a Yale-educated mom experienced in dealing with civic institutions and bureaucracies.
After studying the system, she came up with a new strategy this year: Put the school that’s easiest to get into first on the list. Halsey ranked the Hamden interdistrict school Wintergreen first, then Edgewood and Davis Street schools, which are harder to get into because they give preference to kids who live nearby.
As she approached the magnet official, she described the process as “nerve-wracking.”
She shed a tear when she found out Saidan was wait-listed at all three schools.
“It’s really disappointing,” she said.
If she doesn’t get off the three wait lists, Saidan would be sent to her neighborhood school, Truman, which is ranked in the district’s lowest-performing Tier III category.
Halsey and budget watchdog Tim Holahan have spent the past year leading a parent group tackling the transparency of pre-K admissions. In a recent appearance at the school board, parents asked the district for a list, by school, of how many kids applied to each magnet school and how many were accepted. Making that data public would give parents a better sense of the chance their kid has to get in—and would help them make backup plans as needed, Halsey said.
Halsey said the fact that most parents get wait-listed in the lottery means that “we don’t really have a broad system for choice.”
The district has “a charade of choice,” agreed Holahan.
Holahan, who got his kid into Edgewood, said the system needs more transparency around the “distribution of a scarce resource”—seats in the city’s top schools.
The timing of the admission process is difficult for families trying to get into pre-K, Halsey added, because many private programs ask parents to sign contracts in February for seats in the following year. Parents who strike out on the magnet seats can try to get into the Head Start and school readiness programs, which Halsey and Holahan are working on making easier to navigate. (Click here for an explanatory web guide they made.)
The process was made even more difficult this year, Halsey said, because the district delayed its magnet lottery by two weeks.
Linehan said the process was delayed because the computer programmer the district hires, Bob Oliver, was “unresponsive” to the district’s request to merge online applications into the database. By the time Oliver responded, it was too late to send letters home to parents to verify their online applications had gone through OK.
The Silver Lining
Linehan said the disappointment that many parents experienced Tuesday is an affirmation of the magnet program—and a directive to do more.
Fifteen years ago, he said, no one was scrambling to get into Edgewood, Davis Street, Barnard or Beecher as they were on Tuesday. When schools reorganize themselves around a theme and become magnet schools, it creates a new energy, he argued.
“Providing families with choice and not locking them into the school where they live has proven successful,” Linehan said.
The magnet lottery has grown in popularity every year, according to Linehan. Last year, 8,008 students applied on time to a similar number of open seats.
Families can still submit late applications to magnet schools, as they were doing Tuesday morning. Even after the lottery took place, there are still some open seats, Linehan said. The biggest vacancies are at Brennan/Rogers, which debuted as a magnet school last year. That school has about 30 openings in kindergarten, he said. He reckoned that’s because the school is a new magnet, and is located in an isolated part of the city. The neighbors who used to send kids to Brennan have been scattered across town as the housing authority rebuilds the Brookside and Rockview projects, he added.
Parents who didn’t get what they wanted can try their luck at Brennan, or with the traditional registration process, which starts on May 1 for kindergarten.
Linehan said he felt the pain of parents like Halsey who didn’t win the lottery.
“I knew there were going to be a lot of people disappointed,” he said. “The bigger picture is the job’s not done. New Haven has to be persistent in continuing to expand options for kids.”