Adams: The Lottery — Parents Fear the Looming Horror of NYC’s New School Admissions Process

New York City school admissions has always been a bit of a lottery. That’s because, in addition to their local, zoned public school, elementary and middle school students could also apply to unzoned district schools and gifted/honors programs outside their zone and/or district. The majority of high schools were open to students citywide, depending in many cases on grades, test scores and, sometimes, additional factors like portfolios, interviews and auditions, to screen teens for admissions.

Even before the coronavirus struck New York City last March, there had been a push to get rid of all screening and replace it with a district-based lottery for middle schools, a citywide one for high schools.

Brooklyn’s District 15 did precisely that in 2019, declaring success that May, before the city Department of Education even had data on how many students would actually enroll in their newly unscreened middle schools, much less on what the outcomes would be down the road.

At the very tail end of 2020, just as the city’s partially reopened schools were going on winter break, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that, for the 2021 admissions season, all middle schools would forgo screening and admit strictly via lottery (as, now, are gifted and talented kindergarten programs).

As for high schools, they could still consider grades, test scores and other factors, but they should also put a greater emphasis on racial, socioeconomic and academic diversity. As a result, many high schools that in the past had ranked students strictly based on a composite score derived using grades, tests scores and other factors, tweaked their rubric so all students who met a pre-set bar — for instance, an 85 grade-point average, or a 90 GPA and a 3.5 state test score — would then be considered equally eligible and entered into a single lottery. This meant that, unlike in earlier years, an A student had no advantage over a B student. In addition, district priority was eradicated, meaning that students who lived physically closer to a school, were also not prioritized. (The latter is a move I’ve championed for years, as this set-aside was available only in some districts.) In addition, a percentage of seats at most schools, ranging from 30 to 67, will be set aside for students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch.

With a ranking based strictly on grades and tests scores (though some screened schools did ask for much more subjective essays and interviews, and a few continue to do so for 2021), it was easier to sniff out any malfeasance. If a student with a 92 average got placed ahead of one with a 99 average, and both had listed it first out of 12 possible preferred schools on their application, there was a basis for an appeal, or, at least, an investigation. (Appeals were gotten rid of in 2020, and replaced with waitlists, which sometimes mysteriously moved in the wrong direction.)

Concerned parents wrote me to ask: Who conducts the new lottery? Where? What algorithm? Or do they have a giant drum? Who oversees it? Who audits the results? Will there be any guarantee that a child won’t be sent to a distant school /any radius limits? If there are quotas [for students in poverty], will those students have a separate lottery? Will they be shuffled back to the main lottery?

The biggest objection parents of rising middle schoolers have is that they will not be able to know their child’s lottery number before ranking their top 12 choices on the common application. Families will have no sense whether their number is a “high” one, which means their odds of getting into their top choice schools are good, or whether the number is so “low” that they might as well not waste space on the popular and oversubscribed schools, and make their choices from among schools that rarely fill, since those will be the only options they’ll have left.

A mom who asked that we only use her initials, G.D., to protect her privacy, wrote:

The main issue I have with the lottery is that you have the same lottery number for all schools. This means if you are 74,999 out of 75,000 kids, your preferences are meaningless. If we are going to go with lotteries, I would rather see a different lottery number for each school. That way, if you get a poor lottery number at your first choice, maybe you get a better lottery number at your second. Or perhaps families who don’t get into their zoned school or any other of their 11 choices are at least ahead of other students on waitlists, or given higher priority in the application process. It seemed so unfair when we didn’t even get a spot at our zoned school, but then families who did were ahead of us on waitlists at other schools. We had to wait for them to find a better option, to make space for us. The city claims the process is fair since every student gets a spot somewhere, but it isn’t fair for one student to be #1 on a waitlist at 5 schools, while another is 100+ on all those same schools. Waiting for kids to move around does nothing when you are the bottom of every single list. 

I suspect there will be large numbers of disappointed families in the middle and high school process this year, simply because of one bad lottery number, which leaves them with zero viable options. After my own experience with “losing” a random lottery, I will not participate in another school lottery system for my kids again. Their education is too important to leave up to random chance, and we prefer to have more control over it.

Another parent agreed:

It is so difficult to know how to list the 12 schools. Risk lotteries, or apply to something more secure even though it is not our first, second or third choice and possibly all the way across town. I find this all very very stressful.

PLACE NYC, a parent advocacy group, has filed a Freedom of Information request in advance of the middle school application deadline, Feb. 23.

The group writes:

“Families should be given their lottery number before the middle school application is due. Students with unlucky lottery numbers can research less in-demand schools and not waste their choices on high demand programs. Students with good lottery numbers can limit their research to their top selections. It is only fair that families be allowed to adjust their rankings after receiving their lottery number.”

Furthermore, once the assignments are done, the DOE should publish the range of lottery numbers that gained acceptance to each school. This should be included as part of the waitlist process that kicks in after offers are made in late spring. This will help ensure no senior officials or individuals with influence are able to jump the line.

NYC waitlists have traditionally been problematic, with students moving up the queue depending on their ability to charm a given school’s parent coordinator, or utilize other connections.

Almost two years ago, a parent wrote me confidentially:

No parents should trust a waitlist. I work in a public school. I help with registration. I can see how we move kids around. For example, if a parent knows the parent coordinator or someone in the school, they are moved to the top. … Parents shouldn’t trust waitlists because principals and secretaries modify them all the time.

Other parents confirm this reality.

If this is what the process was like before the black box of a supposedly random lottery, what might it be like now, when families will have even less information about why their child was placed in a given school?

Alina Adams is a New York Times best-selling romance and mystery writer, the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten and Getting Into NYC High School, a blogger at New York School Talk and mother of three. She believes you can’t have true school choice until all parents know all their school choices — and how to get them. Visit her website, www.NYCSchoolSecrets.com.

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