Charter Schools Turning to Weighted Lotteries to Attract Low-Income Students

According to 2021 state enrollment data, 77.7% of students statewide are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to only 43.4% of students at state-sponsored charter schools. (Photo courtesy of Coral Academy)

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Often criticized for a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity, Nevada charter schools are starting to embrace weighted lotteries as a way to increase enrollment of under-resourced students.

Coral Academy, which operates seven schools across Southern Nevada, announced this week they are accepting applications for the 2022-23 school year, and that low-income students will have a better shot at snagging one of their coveted seats, thanks to the implementation of a new weighted lottery system.

Ercan Aydogdu, executive director and CEO of Coral Academy, describes how it will work simply: It’s like a fishbowl filled with raffle tickets. A student who is considered economically disadvantaged will have four tickets put in. A student who isn’t will have one ticket put in. Students receive the weight if they qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch (FRL) program, which applies to families with incomes at or below 185% of the poverty line. For a family of four, that’s $49,000 annually.

Coral doesn’t struggle for applicants overall. Its schools regularly have to hold a lottery because applicants outnumber open seats. Aydogdu says Coral has a combined wait list of more than 5,000 students still hoping to enroll during this current school year.

The times-four multiplier of enrollment is likely to have the biggest impact at Coral’s newest campus, Cadence, which is scheduled to open next year in the Henderson master planned community of the same name. Coral Cadence will be enrolling 1,800 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Coral’s other campuses will have fewer open seats (since the majority of students return for subsequent years) but may also see a boost in FRL-eligible students.

The Coral academies are the first Southern Nevada charter schools to implement a weighted lottery system. But several others, including Pinecrest Academies of Southern Nevada, are agendized to ask the state Charter School Board on Friday for permission to move to a weighted lottery system.

Two Northern Nevada charter schools already use a weighted lottery.

Though they are privately managed, charter schools are considered public schools because they receive state and federal funding. They cannot use selection criteria such as academic performance or entrance essays, and they cannot charge tuition or fees. They are supposed to be open for all students. However, in practice, and for a variety of reasons, charter school enrollment skews significantly whiter and more affluent than traditional public schools.

For example, 77.7% of students statewide are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to only 43.4% of students at state-sponsored charter schools, according to 2021 state enrollment data.

Coral Academy’s existing schools have FRL student populations around 30%. Aydogdu says the schools have been making headway in the past few years to make that number more reflective of the community at large, but he acknowledges their campuses still lag behind Clark County School District. A Charter School Authority presentation on enrollment shows three Coral campuses as having the biggest percentage boost in FRL enrollment between 2020 and 2021. Their Nellis Air Force Base campus went from 16.5% FRL to 29.6%.

Coral’s other efforts have included hiring a family and community outreach coordinator to market specifically to people in targeted low-income neighborhoods.

Previous efforts fell short

Pinecrest Academy of Northern Nevada opened for the 2020-2021 school year. It was approved by the Charter School Authority the calendar year prior with high hopes of reflecting the community at large. One of the tools it hoped would deliver diversity: the weighted lottery.

Now in its second academic year, PANN reported a student population that was only 14.6% FRL eligible; 45.4% of all Washoe County students are FRL eligible.

Principal Jami Austin believes the pandemic is a major reason why the school fell far short of its goal to mirror Washoe County demographics. The school’s enrollment period fell around the same time as the onset of the pandemic, meaning many low-wage earners had more immediate issues to address than school choice.

But the biggest hurdle was likely that the Charter School Authority required its schools to operate at 50% capacity at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year, meaning PANN had to operate in a virtual or hybrid format. Washoe County School District, the charter’s primary competitor for student enrollment, offered instruction entirely in-person.

“We quickly lost a lot of (prospective) kids,” says Austin. “Looking at families of lower socioeconomic status and what their priorities are. It was, ‘I just need my kid in school, so they’ll have to go to the neighborhood school.’”

Austin adds that the school is doing “re-outreach”to those families in hopes they might reapply.

Another factor may have been the way PANN originally structured its weighted lottery. For the inaugural year, it was a times-two multiplier for FRL eligible students. Austin says the potential benefit of having two chances for enrollment instead of just one might not have been a strong enough incentive to compel parents to submit the necessary paperwork to prove they qualify for FRL.

For their second year, they raised the weight to a five-times multiplier.

“We want to make sure everyone who has that need and desire has the opportunity to attend,” says Austin. “We spend all this time teaching and educating families and getting them to apply. For them not to get in is devastating.”

Aydogdu of Coral Academy isn’t discouraged by early results from PANN.

“Reno is totally different,” he says. “We are hoping in Southern Nevada (the weighted lottery) will see a much greater impact, especially for the first year (at Cadence).”

Amanda Safford, the director of operations for Academica Nevada, agrees the regions are different. Fewer charter schools exist in Northern Nevada, which means parents and other caregivers are less familiar with what they are and who is eligible to attend. Academica Nevada is the private education management organization that sets up and manages many of the state’s charter schools, including Pinecrest, Doral and Mater academies.

Safford says the impact of the weighted lottery is still promising and that the types of families interested in PANN are diversifying. She is also encouraged to see other charter schools follow suit.

“There’s a real desire on the part of the boards in the schools I serve of wanting to help diversify and provide access to all students,” she said.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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