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School Lottery Rules Questioned

February 7, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

To stop the brain drain from Hartford's schools and to give all city children an equal shot at a seat in a magnet school, a member of the city school board has proposed automatically enrolling all Hartford kids in the magnet lottery.

Board member Michael Williams, who is the director of the area office for the state Department of Children and Families, said he worries that the magnet school system is creating a two-tiered city school system. Children whose parents are not assertive and who are struggling the most are being left behind, he said.

"Students entering the magnet system are getting a far superior education than those who are not," Williams said. Students in foster care and those whose parents are overwhelmed by their busy days or who don't bother to learn about the magnet schools, don't end up entering the lottery, he said.

This year, for the first time, Williams is directing his caseworkers to fill out applications for all the children in foster care who are eligible for the lottery. About 200 of the 683 students assigned to caseworkers in Hartford are entering grades accepting students in magnet schools.

Next year, there will be about 1,100 new slots for Hartford children in 10 magnet schools and about 340 seats for suburban kids. The board has rejected the idea to make changes in the lottery selection process for those slots; Ed Linehan, Hartford's executive director of magnet schools and choice programs, called it "an administrative nightmare" to make changes this late in the process. But the board agreed to consider making changes for the next lottery.

The deadline to apply for the lottery for spots in September's class is Feb. 18.

In addition to not getting access to creative programs in the magnet schools, Williams said, the students who are left behind find fewer honors and advanced placement classes in the regular schools because the exodus of top students leaves less demand for the challenging classes.

Others are expressing similar concerns about the lottery and the pattern of enrollment that is emerging.

Martha Stone, one of the lawyers in the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation lawsuit that led to the creation of some of the magnet schools, said that officials must remember that the point of the Sheff case was to create equal opportunity for all the children in the city. Some parents, she said, don't know how to negotiate the magnet system because of a language barrier, because they are intimidated or because they haven't visited any of the magnet schools so they don't know how to choose a school.

"If everybody gets in the pool, then once you're chosen, you pick out a school and fill out the paperwork," Stone said.

In West Hartford, when the district held a lottery for enrollment in the new middle school, officials entered the names of all fifth- and sixth-graders in the town to give all students an equal chance for admission.

Linehan, the magnet schools and choice programs director, told the board this week that changing the rules this late in the year to fill slots in schools around the city would create an administrative nightmare. He suggested that a group convene to study options, including his idea to create a hybrid system that would set aside a certain number of seats for students who apply and the rest for a general lottery.

Linehan said he sees merit in the idea of reserving seats for students who would not otherwise apply for a magnet school. But "the goal here should not be to work around the uninvolved parent - the goal should be to encourage parents to get involved," he said.

A system that reserves seats for those who apply while setting aside places for those who don't would reward parents who get involved but also ensure opportunity for kids who don't apply, Linehan said.

Williams said he thinks the school district needs to be as aggressive about recruiting Hartford students to the magnet schools as it is about recruiting suburban students. And while a hybrid system to reserve some seats for those who don't take steps to apply would be an improvement over the current method, he said, "the ideal is that all kids get an equal shot."

Linehan said he will work closely with DCF caseworkers to help them fill out applications for children in foster care, and he will convene a group to study ways to improve access to the schools for all students.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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