Losing the school choice lottery and what it means for one family

Yesterday, I spent all day hitting the Refresh button on my email account. Probably 653 times. Why? Because the one school that we wanted for our children for next year was to announce its lottery results to those lucky few who would be chosen. 12 or 13 slots for sixth grade, out of an application pool of several hundred (wish I knew exactly how many).

On click number 653 we got the news at last: Our numbers didn’t hit.

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My parents practiced school choice the old-fashioned way in the late 1970’s – they moved from the east side of Columbus to the boonies. This was their only option. With a one-income family and four children, private school was not in the cards. My father drove 30 miles one way to work (even farther later in his career) with no complaints.

Why not stay in Columbus City Schools? Desegregation. I’m not proud of this fact and the mindset that it evokes, but they were not the only ones in our neighborhood – let alone the city – who did not want their children bussed across town for a school they felt inferior to the one they had. In fact, we had five other family/friends move from our street alone into the same tiny burg in the country the same summer. Did we miss out on some opportunities moving from a big city district to the country? You bet. But all of us did OK in our new environment and our lives and careers are still on track nearly 40 years later.

Fast forward to 2013: my family and I live in the city of Columbus in an old house on a quiet street near everything we love – libraries, parks (river, bikepath, etc.), stores, activities, and even the road out of town for when wandering sounds good. Our commute to work is 15 minutes on a bad day.

This neighborhood has been the same for a very long time, but much has changed around it and much within the mindset of its residents, especially in terms of education that is on the minds of the many young families who choose to live here. And it is a choice that they make for the most part. Incomes here are all over the board and can usually be determined by where you live in relation to the major crossroads. To say you live in this part of town conveys nothing but a relative geography until folks probe deeper and then they figure out more about you by whether you live northwest or southeast of High and Broadway. And so you can choose to be in the same area whether you have a middling amount of money or a large amount of money. House, apartment, duplex, condo – we have it. This is a place you go when you have some means (either a little or a lot).

What we don’t have is a district school that I want to send my daughters to. This is no different than my parents felt – for a very different reason – but the landscape of choice has changed. In fact, that landscape includes an opt-in to the Columbus district, which many vocal parents are choosing and advocating for among their friends and acquaintances. They reason that if more motivated parents choose to be here, the neighborhood school and all its students will benefit. And, honestly, if there is a good Columbus elementary school to be had (i.e. – rigorous, focused on student success, geared toward the future, and not sparing with high-value homework) it’s probably here. In fact, our area is one of the few with no voucher-eligible schools in Columbus. But we investigated and found it academically wanting and so it was out. NOTE: I am not the first Fordham father to talk about this. Check out Mike Petrilli’s excellent book for his much more detailed story.

So was the district lottery, despite the fact that many families we knew sent their children (often multiple children) to the alternative school several blocks away. If you can get in. But it too seemed to be less than an ideal fit for our girls and the lottery process was reported to be Byzantine and often fruitless, although it still lurks in the back of our minds.

No charter schools in our neighborhood, so we would be forced to bus them or drive them a long way to reach one of the few good charter elementaries. So that was not practical either.

And as we have always done, we were looking at the big picture – middle school, high school, college readiness. Even if we had been tireless advocates for our children in the neighborhood public elementary (pushing for more rigor, nagging for more attention from teachers, and supplementing the classroom work with outside opportunities), there was nothing available to us in the district even remotely worthwhile to us after fifth grade.

And since neither of us have the skill to homeschool, we have gone the private school route. That has been our reality since the girls were three years old – private daycare, private preschool, private Montessori school, and now a private K-8 school, with summer camps each year from various private sources. Out of our own middle-income pockets. Not the elite Academies or all-girls schools you might have heard of, but a white-bread (in all senses of the term, unfortunately) middle-of-the-road institution that really would rather be doing Mass than math. But they soldier on with academics, pleased to adopt and align to the Common Core early but lax on homework, indifferent to long-term project-based learning, and weak in areas where there's no such thing as a common core standard.

The girls have done great – worked hard, learned the value of a good education, and produced at or above our expectations regularly. And they even know how to have fun when the work is finished. They are fantastic and on the right path, sometimes despite the teachers in the schools they’ve attended.

So, what was yesterday about? Those 653 clicks?

The holy grail.

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We have had our eye on the local STEM school for high school (talk about the long game) for the last couple of years, only to have them announce that they are expanding to middle school just in time for our kids to start sixth grade. Wow. But maybe it’s not as good as we thought it was.

Open house. Amazing. Even better than we imagined.

Application. Easy and interesting. I didn’t realize my eleven-year-olds had already figured out their five-year visions.

The waiting. Hard, but not too long.

Word on the street: everyone we know is applying. Probably lots of folks we don’t know.

Uh oh.

Yesterday? Depression.

***

Our only Plan B is to return to our middle-of-the-road private school, downtrodden and with even lower expectations than before. (You know how it is: as soon as you decide that you want to trade in your old car, you suddenly see its flaws even more starkly.) We can apply to the STEM school – the only one of its kind for 20 miles – again next year for seventh grade. And again the following year for eighth grade. And again the following year for ninth grade, as we had originally planned.

We figured we had the school choice thing in Columbus locked up: we lived where we wanted, paid for the best school we could afford, and then supplemented to the best of our ability. We didn’t even begrudge our property taxes continuing to go to Columbus City Schools. The American way, right?

Our kids are our priority and we know where we want them to go: to college and beyond. They can be anything they want with the right foundation, and it’s our job to give them the best foundation possible. That’s why yesterday’s lottery loss stings so much. We know we’d found it. And we can’t get in.

What happens when you don’t have means, when you don’t have knowledge of the system, when you have other priorities weighing on your family, when all of your “choices” are bad?

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