Published in the Houston Chronicle on November 8, 2015
Marisol Ortega's son won't start kindergarten until August, yet the path to get him there began at 5:30 a.m. last Monday. That's when Ortega arrived at a KIPP charter school campus in southwest Houston, before dawn and before the security guard, to enter 5-year-old Ethan in the kindergarten admissions lottery. While her early start ensured her place at the front of the line, it also guaranteed a two-and-a-half hour wait before the lottery would open.
The self-described early bird heard "nothing but good things" about KIPP and got the tip to go early from a friend of hers who did the same thing last year. Ortega killed time by watching news on her phone and rested on one of the brown leather couches along the hallway, where dozens of parents would await their turn to sign up a few hours later.
The annual charter school lottery period is here, when parents throw their children's names into the proverbial hat for a chance to enroll in their school of choice. With limited spaces and wait lists that can literally be thousands of names deep, parents are willing to try anything they think may better their chances - whether that means camping out, arriving early or coming back year after year.
Hundreds line up
Repeat lottery enrollee Elsie Akpan wanted to have all of her children attend the same school. She currently has two children at KIPP SHINE in southwest Houston, and last year her daughter Favour almost made the cut to join her siblings at the campus. She only made it as far as No. 8 on the wait list though, so Akpan decided to try again this year. She wanted to come on the first day of the lottery this time, in case it in any way improved her daughters' chances. Like Ortega, she first learned of the lottery process from a neighbor.
"I didn't even think about anything else, I just came here," Akpan said.
Charter schools, such as the KIPP network, don't have admissions tests but instead rely on a lottery system to determine enrollment. KIPP's lottery period began Nov. 2 and lasts until Jan. 29, with a drawing in March. Parents can enter at any point during this period, in many cases online as well as in person, yet hundreds of parents lined up at KIPP campuses throughout Houston to sign up on the first day. While KIPP advertises the lottery via postcards sent home with students, on their website, through fliers and via social media, many parents said they learned about it from someone they know.
'An odds game'
Certain elements can give students an advantage in being selected. For example, if students already have a sibling in that school or they live in the zoned ZIP codes for that location, they'll be given priority. However, with so few spots at most grade levels (some grades won't have any openings unless a student leaves), it's greatly up to chance whether students get into their school of choice.
Last year, KIPP's 24 campuses had about 15,000 applicants for 2,500 seats, officials said.
This means parents must do their homework if they are looking for an option other than the child's zoned public school.
Families Empowered, a nonprofit that focuses on helping families find schools for their children, recommends parents start researching almost a year in advance. Colleen Dippel, founder and executive director, prescribes applying to a minimum of three "thoughtful schools," which could include charter, public magnet campuses, and private or parochial schools. In some cases, the best option may be the neighborhood school, she said.
"It's very much an odds game," said Dippel, who is married to KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg. "You increase your odds by applying to multiple schools, like applying to college."
Parents can check a box when they sign up for various lottery systems, such as the KIPP, YES Prep Public Schools or Harmony Science lotteries, if they want Families Empowered to contact them. The group works to provide information on school options but focuses on families who've already entered the charter school waitlist.
"We don't feel like there's huge value in trying to drum up demand for charter schools," Dippel said.
Some critics, such as Craig Hochbein, think the lottery system doesn't afford the same choice to all students, rather just those who know to enter.
"We need to focus on the kid who might not have a guardian who answers the door," the professor of education at Lehigh University said.
He proposes opening the lottery to all students in a certain district or predetermined area, to give all students a chance to enroll, not only those who have the "gumption and will and ability to enter."
Hochbein agrees one potential drawback is that it would further limit seats for students extremely eager to enroll, but at the same time it could prove whether a school can achieve success with all students, not only those with a certain level of capital at home.
By the end of the day Monday, almost 500 parents had entered the KIPP lottery at that location alone. Several hundred more are expected to sign up between now and January, all with the same hope their child will make the cut.
Written by: Fauzeya Rahman