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School Choice Lottery Poorly Managed, Critics Say

Odds are against winning an 'Open Choice' seat, yet some seats still unfilled this year

Kathleen Megan

November 16, 2011

Diana Turner's son, Travis, is thriving at Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, but her daughter, Arianna, has missed out on a chance for a magnet school four years in a row and, Turner said, is not challenged at a parochial school.

"It's a little bit disheartening, a little bit sad," said Turner, a New Britain resident, who nonetheless will submit an application again on her daughter's behalf. "My son has had it so easy. My daughter is just as bright, has just as much talent. Unless we fight for it, she's not going to have these opportunities."

Keisha Belcher of Hartford went to Plainville High School through the former Project Concern program back in the 1990s. Now she hopes to get her 3-year-old daughter into a suburban school — she'd like Windsor or Plainville districts — through the state's Open Choice program or to get her admitted to a magnet school for next year.

"I'm a little nervous because she might not get a seat," said Belcher. "If she doesn't get a seat, I'll have to put her in the Hartford public schools."

The annual high-stakes game of chance is again warming up — a lottery that offers about a one-third chance of success for applicants hoping to attend a magnet school or a school in the suburbs through the choice program.

"There's really no way to handicap this thing," said Jim Caradonio, who is bureau chief of the Greater Hartford Regional School Choice Office. "It's roughly 33 percent, but I tell people, if they don't apply, they have a zero chance."

Last year, 13,000 students applied for 4,000 seats, Caradonio said.

'A Management Problem'

Some advocates for the regional choice program say that if the state improved its management of the program, more seats would be available for students through the Open Choice program in the suburbs, and placements would be made efficiently and promptly.

Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, said more should be done to help Hartford parents learn about the suburban schools available to their children through Open Choice.

"Many of the parents are applying for schools they don't know anything about," said Douglas. "I think it's not a respectful way to approach this."

In addition, Douglas said the lottery has occurred too late in the school year — he said it was April last year — and decisions are made too slowly.

Some suburban schools have unfilled openings for Open Choice students this year, he said.

"We are not facilitating the program in a way that makes it attractive for parents to select Open Choice," Douglas said. "The towns have made more seats available than are being filled… This is not a problem with local school districts. This is a management problem."

Martha Stone, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case, said, "Open Choice holds the promise of the state meeting its mandate" to achieve school integration targets, but "there has been a tremendous delay in getting the kids into the Open Choice program when there have been openings in the suburban districts."

Stone said the Open Choice program "needs to be given higher priority by the state Department of Education," including more staffing and better computer technology services.

She added: "The marketing is not nearly as robust as it needs to be."

Mark Linabury, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the state's regional choice office is "working closely with CREC to improve the Open Choice program. Clearly [there are] any number of hurdles that need to be overcome. We've enjoyed a collaborative arrangement with CREC… We're committed to support the program."

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor was not available for comment.

Earlier Deadline

Caradonio said this year the application process was moved up by a month — the deadline this year is Jan. 20 — so that the lottery can be held earlier. He said students will be notified where they are accepted in March or April, depending on the program they have applied for.

Under the Sheff agreement, city children and children from Greater Hartford towns have the option of attending integrated magnet schools in Greater Hartford; city children also have the option of attending a suburban school in 28 Greater Hartford towns. The Open Choice program also includes the option for suburban kids to enroll in certain Hartford schools.

For years, CREC managed the lottery, but in 2008 the state established the Greater Hartford Regional Choice Office to provide information and assistance to families and to conduct the lottery.

Under a court stipulation, the state must meet 80 percent of the demand by Hartford students for school choice program options by next October or enroll at least 41 percent of Hartford minority students in integrated schools. Last year, just 27 percent of minority students from Hartford attended integrated schools.

The state Department of Education is scheduled to provide updates on these statistics this week.

Douglas said this year many parents didn't find out that their child had been selected for a school until June or July — too late for many families, particularly those who had made deposits on a parochial or private school slot.

"If this were CL&P, we'd all be on their backs," Douglas said of the state's management.

He said that because magnet schools are expensive to build and operate, it's more cost-efficient to expand the Open Choice program as a way to reach Sheff integration targets.

"We don't have the right to fail children because education is an emergency," Douglas said. "It's about the here and now. It's not about are we going to have a better lottery next year? What about the kids in the past five years that missed the opportunity? … Do it right. This is not rocket science."

Stone also noted the unfilled openings in Open Choice school districts this year and the failure to place students in those slots.

The state is "being really slow about it," Stone said. "My concern is that this has got to be at the top of the agenda."

The Greater Hartford Regional School Choice Office will hold the third of five school choice fairs Wednesday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Cromwell High School, 34 Evergreen Road, Cromwell.

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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