About 120 lucky students won the lottery this past year and got into their chosen school: Central Park International Magnet School.
But 259 others were left on the waiting list all year, and never got into the K-8 school.
It’s an inherently unfair system, according to Board of Education member Andrew Chestnut. At a volatile meeting last week, he said he would not support continuing such a system, while other board members suggested a compromise: create K-5 schools and middle schools, but allow Central Park to continue with a lottery.
Chestnut said continuing the lottery system would be wrong.
“To me, lotteries are not about equity; they’re about winners and losers,” he said. “I’m not going to support something that divides our community.”
Parents attending the meeting argued at first that the lottery system wasn’t as bad as he thought. They said they knew no one who had waited on the list for more than six months.
But they’ve never met the hundreds of parents whose children never got into the school.
The situation is staggering. At the start of the school year, there were four spaces open for first-graders. Competing for those seats were 105 children, according to records released by the district in response to a request from The Daily Gazette.
The first four students won the lottery. The rest were sent to a wait list, and most of them never got off the list.
The situation was even worse at the seventh grade. Many parents, trying to keep their children out of the middle school, entered the seventh-grade lottery for each of the K-8 schools. At Central Park, there were 99 entrants.
The school district added seats at that grade to make room for more students after closing one middle school. But there wasn’t enough space for everyone. The district could only let 25 of the 99 children enroll at the school.
Even parents of incoming eighth graders applied to get them out of the middle school. Twelve students tried to get into Central Park. There wasn’t a space for any of them.
Although the district put all of the students on a wait list, there wasn’t much hope. Over the course of the year, in each grade, fewer than five seats opened up, said Lori McKenna, the district’s director of planning and accountability.
Seats only open up if a parent removes the child from the school or the family moves out of the city.
At every grade level, children remained on the wait list for the entire year. In most grades, the wait list had dozens of children.
Despite the numbers, Cathy Knauf, a parent from Central Park, said the system should continue.
She said the demand for seats at Central Park proved the district should provide more schools like it, rather than closing it.
“If we have hundreds of families ‘waiting’ to get in, should we be taking that away or making more?” she asked.
Some of the parents of wait-listed children have attended meetings to ask for more schools like Central Park. They have praised the K-8 model, saying they prefer it over the city’s middle schools. They have also spoken highly of the foreign-language classes for elementary students and the school’s strong sense of community.
Many parents have also asked the school board to create more K-8 schools. The vast majority of those parents have students in a K-8 school; most parents of children in K-5 schools have not spoken up publicly in the three-year debate over the district’s grade configurations.
School board members said it would cost much more to renovate the city’s schools for K-8 buildings, rather than adding more middle schools and renovating K-5 buildings to handle the increasing school population. But no cost estimates have been released comparing the costs of each proposal.
Board members said they likely will not create K-8 buildings because of the cost and the logistical difficulties with running advanced classes for eighth graders at smaller K-8 buildings. Four of the district’s buildings would be so small that there would statistically be 3 to 6 advanced students in eighth grade.
But Chestnut and other board members said they could use distance learning to create advanced classes among the students at all four small schools.
That leaves just the problem of cost. Some board members have repeatedly said their decision will not be based on cost, but others, including President Cathy Lewis, said that must be considered.