Six years ago this month, I was in a state of high anxiety.
Our firstborn was about to enter kindergarten, and that meant we were muddling our way through the Champaign school lottery.
I wasn’t your typical newbie, like those unsuspecting parents who move into town blissfully unaware of “Schools of Choice.” As a longtime reporter in Champaign-Urbana, I was familiar with the general goals of the system and how it worked. I had been inside every school in town for one story or another.
And yet, I was nervous. When it comes to your own little darling, educational theories and broad social concepts like socioeconomic balance go out the window. The overriding issue becomes: what’s best for him?
We had purposely moved, several years earlier, into a house a block away from a school I’d always admired. Back in my school reporter days, I had gotten to know several teachers and the principal there and liked what I saw.
But that principal was reassigned to another school the year before my son was scheduled to start kindergarten.
And because of the lottery system -- where parents rank their elementary school preferences and wait for the magic computer to determine where they go -- we had no guarantees we’d end up there.
We resented the fact that we had to apply to a school literally steps from our front door. Our son had grown up playing on the school playground, pretending to bring me Happy Meals with Star Wars toys from the imaginary McDonald’s he set up there. So many times I wanted to say, “This is going to be your school someday,” but I had to bite my tongue. I really didn’t know.
We dutifully went through the process, attending a community forum and touring several schools. And we were a bit surprised by what we learned.
We loved the school where the principal I knew had moved. We visited another school that was consistently “overchosen” (in choice lingo) but it held little appeal for us, in part because we’d have to drive across town. And we were very impressed with the arts program at an “underchosen” school. Suddenly we had to reconsider our list.
In the end we stuck with our initial first choice, swayed by our meetings with the teachers there. We liked what they had to say, and the fact that parents at the school were very involved. And we loved the idea of walking to school.
We turned in our three choices to the Family Information Center, where the staff calmed our nerves, and sweated it out until we received the official notice a few weeks later. We were lucky: we got into our first-choice school.
Not all families are so fortunate. Some have built-in disadvantages because of where they live.
In an effort to keep some semblance of neighborhood schools, families in the lottery are given “Proximity A” status to any school within a 1.5-mile radius of their home. In our case, there were five schools that fit that description.
But families who don’t live within 1.5 miles of any school -- typically in new developments on the outskirts of town -- have no Proximity A choices. They are assigned “Proximity B” to the nearest school, and in many cases have a good shot at getting in there. But it effectively shuts them out of several schools in the older parts of town that are too far away to be their proximity school and fill up with Proximity A families, including South Side, Westview and Carrie Busey (which will move to a new site in Savoy in 2012).
Every spring several dozen families (about 8 percent) wind up “unassigned” because they didn’t get any of their choices.
The district has tweaked the system over the years to try to alleviate that problem, says Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris. Based on the proportion of families with Proximity B, it allocates 18 percent of kindergarten seats at the six Proximity B schools to those families (after siblings are assigned). That share could rise to 20 percent this year, based on housing growth, officials said. The district is also re-calibrating transportation data to account for new roads that affect the 1.5-mile calculations.
The district works with unassigned families to find a suitable school, then allows them to stay on a waiting list for each of their preferred schools for the entire year, if needed. They can renew their spot on the waiting list for the following school year or, if a seat comes open in May, hold the seat so their child doesn’t have to switch schools late in the semester.
Waiting lists do turn over, especially during the summer, as Champaign is a mobile community. But Bottenfield, now the district’s most overchosen school, still has 92 kindergartners on its waiting list (for 69 seats).
This year, the district is allowing parents to list five choices so they have an even better shot at getting into one of their preferred schools. (Currently, 92 percent of families get one of their top three choices.)
Unit 4 is also creating magnet programs at two historically underchosen schools, Washington (math/science) and Garden Hills (international). More than 100 families signed up in a special magnet lottery last month.
And, as part of a federal grant, the district is working with the University of Illinois on an extensive parent survey to evaluate the system -- specifically, why they choose (or don’t choose) specific schools. Michael Alves, the Boston consultant who designed the “controlled choice” plan, says the key is to give parents great options across the board.
Originally designed to balance schools racially and improve achievement, the plan grew out of complaints by African-American families whose children were not flourishing academically.
Under the old system of assigned school boundaries, many of them were unable to attend schools close to home. Their neighborhoods were carved up and assigned to schools across town to achieve racial balance.
Districtwide, school boundaries had to be redrawn every few years as new subdivisions opened or neighborhoods turned over. Those decisions always riled up parents -- I endured many heated redistricting meetings -- and inevitably left someone unhappy.
Parents didn’t have a choice about what school their child attended unless they moved to a new neighborhood.
The advantage of choice (for most families) is that you’re not tied to one school. If you don’t like the one in your neighborhood, you have other options. And if you like your child’s school, you can stay there even if you move across the district.
School officials know the system isn’t perfect. They expect anxiety each year as new families struggle to understand the myriad details.
At the greatest disadvantage are children who move to town or register after school assignments are made in the spring. They can only go where there’s room, though the district tries to keep siblings together, says family services Director Doretha Simmons, who found spots for 112 students this year.
“I know the system is flawed,” says school board member Sue Grey. “We have to figure out how to make it work.”
But she and other school officials also have advice for parents: Stay calm, keep an open mind, and be excited about your child starting school, wherever you land.
“If you’re tied up in knots, they’re going to get tied up in knots,” Grey says.
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Facts about the lottery for the 2010-11 school year:
Source: Champaign schools
For more information:
Photos: Ian Weible and Candice Wilund, top, work together in Steve Keepes' kindergarten class at Bottenfield School in Champaign on Thursday (3/10/11). At bottom, UI student teacher Caitlyn Stone explains the new literacy work to the students. Vanda Bidwell/The News-Gazette