published Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Last two Chattanooga magnet schools switching to lottery for admission

Colleen Burer, right, puts her daughter, Rachel Burer, center, on the waiting list at Chattanooga School of Arts and Sciences on Thursday. Younger sister Sarah Burer, left, sits on the wall with them. About a dozen parents had signed the waiting list with school enrollment scheduled to begin on Saturday, Oct. 13.
Colleen Burer, right, puts her daughter, Rachel Burer, center, on the waiting list at Chattanooga School of Arts and Sciences on Thursday. Younger sister Sarah Burer, left, sits on the wall with them. About a dozen parents had signed the waiting list with school enrollment scheduled to begin on Saturday, Oct. 13.
Photo by John Rawlston.

A lottery is replacing the first-come, first-served application process at CSAS and CSLA. These are the steps required to get a child’s name in the lottery.

  1. Complete a school tour between Sept. 1 and Sept. 30.

  2. Complete an orientation meeting between Oct. 3 and Oct. 7.

  3. Complete a Paideia philosophy meeting explaining the teaching methods at each school between Oct. 10 and Oct. 14.

  4. Complete a parent seminar between Nov. 1 and Nov. 11.

  5. Applications are due Nov. 18.

  6. Qualified applicants will be placed into a public lottery on Dec. 5.

  7. Notification letters for enrollment will be sent in mid-December.

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education

From the time the first tent was pitched outside Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences in 1986, people wondered about the sanity of parents willing to wait weeks in line to get their children into the county’s two largest magnet schools.

Over the years, the school system dabbled with a lottery system for enrollment into CSAS and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, but for most of the schools’ history securing a seat for a kindergartner meant one thing: sheer willpower. Parents would camp outside the school for weeks to guarantee their child a place.

School administrators never really liked the system of first-come, first-served. Camping weeks for a seat in a school seemed excessive, and at times unfair, they said. What about the parents who couldn’t mobilize neighbors and extended family or pay people to hold the spot outside the school and check in every six hours for roll call?

But parents signed petitions and pushed to keep it, especially the ones who fought through rain and sleepless nights on an air mattress and got their kid on that list. The tradition proved mettle, they said, and showed who deserved a top-notch public education and who didn’t.

“It was horrendous, and it was great,” said Vallerie Greer, who camped out in line in 1989 and again in 1992 and got both her kids into CSAS. “We were in a town that didn’t value public education, but there was a whole group of people sitting outside because they did value it.”

But this year, the list, the line, the yellow flag that signified when parents began the waiting game each year, are going away for good. After months of negotiations, school administrators, teachers and parents on a committee to change the process agreed to replace the line with a lottery system, similar to the one the county’s 12 other magnet schools already use.

“We just decided this year it was time to stop it,” said Karla Riddle, director of innovative programs for the Hamilton County Department of Education. “[Parents] think it is a great bonding experience. They say, ‘We were in this war together. We were in this saddle together.’ [The administration] really needed to take charge.”

Riddle said a committee was formed to get serious about changing the application process at CSAS and CSLA because, while some parents supported the line, others complained it excluded too many.

School administrators, who thought the process was disorderly, wanted parents to understand more about the school’s Paideia philosophy of education before committing to sending their child to one of the magnets.

“It was like standing in line for a rock concert,” Riddle said. “This is not what is supposed to happen with public schools. ... We just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

This year, parents who want their children to attend either CSAS or CSLA next fall will be required to complete four steps — a school tour, an orientation, a session explaining the schools’ teaching philosophy and a parent seminar — before they can apply and be entered into a random drawing for enrollment.

Officials said the application process still will require parents to commit significant time, but the results now will be much more a matter of chance.

Between a third and half of the people who fill out applications get into one of the two magnet schools each year. First choice goes to teachers’ children and siblings of students already enrolled. That is what made the list so important for everyone else.

“get down here”

In 2009, when David and Marcie Shinn toured CSAS and determined that their 4-year-old daughter, Macy, should attend the magnet school, Shinn knew it would test him.

The school typically didn’t start accepting applications until mid-October, but by August the couple was driving by the school several days a week, checking to see if the yellow flag was posted. They watched the news every night and tried to get in good with other hopeful parents. If they were nice enough, maybe they would get the call if others found out first that the line had started.

Then, five weeks before the application deadline, it came.

“The line has started. Get down here,” the caller, another parent, said.

Shinn drove as fast as he could. He was number 14.

The first person in line made the rules and shifted some year to year. Every day at 6:30 p.m. parents had to check in to secure their spot on the list. If they were a minute late, they were cut, and several people on the list had to stay at the school all day and night to keep order.

The school and the system office didn’t want to get involved, so it was up to the parents to defend the list.

Within hours of Shinn’s arrival, more than 150 people had a number.

Over the weeks, Shinn put in hundreds of hours, camping overnight, calling roll and still working his 8-to-5 job.

He said the night before he turned in his daughter’s application, he — like many parents — was giddy with anticipation and fear. There were rumors that some renegade parents could burst in at the last minute and force their way to the front of the line. It had happened in past years, and parents had pitched in to hire security to enforce the list.

After it was over, when all the papers had been turned in, one of the parents sold T-shirts saying, “I survived the line in 2009.”

Shinn was on the 12-person committee to consider replacing the list with the lottery, and the decision was bittersweet, he said. He knows a lottery will change the makeup of the school, make it more diverse, making it easier for deserving parents who can’t commit weeks to living outside the school.

But he also wonders if the schools are losing something important. In some way, the list could have shaped the magnets into some of the best schools in the county.

The children in that school had parents who cared, and they knew the other parents cared, too, he said.

Macy, who will start first grade in the fall, started learning Spanish last year as a kindergartner at CSAS, and Shinn was busier than he ever imagined with school projects. It’s been a rough year. The teachers push hard.

But he thinks back on the line. He knows he can handle it, he said.

“It’s kind of bizarre, what it did,” he said. “It wasn’t all bad.”

Contact Joan Garrett at or 423-757-6601.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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Astropig said...

This is like reading about life in the old Soviet Union- Long lines, "connections" that assure a priviledged place for insiders. Rumors of "renegade parents" that would just muscle in. If the dateline had been Smolensk circa 1985,I would have not been surprised. Its sad and depressing that this system can't be changed and reformed to eliminate the sclerotic deadwood that gobble up the resources that the kids need to learn.

May 31, 2011 at 6:57 a.m.
Humphrey said...


May 31, 2011 at 9:01 a.m.
WEBMAN said...

We should make all Hamilton County schools magnet schools.Enough said.

May 31, 2011 at 9:02 a.m.
dhunter said...

A bad decision--parent line demonstrated a commitment. As proof, one year they decided to have half first come,first serve and the other half lottery. The parents who got in with lottery did as little as they could get by with; the parents who got in first come, first serve did everything they could to improve the school community. Big difference in the passion of parental involvement.

May 31, 2011 at 9:15 a.m.
noapathy said...

I have to respectfully disagree with dhunter....this is a common misconception and one that set alot of parents on a mission to have this changed. You may have some statistics that back up your comment that "parent line demostrated a commitment" but I can assure you that your blanket statement is not valid or fair. I know many parents that have long wanted their children to attend CSAS but cannot take the time off of work or away from other commitments to camp out at the school for weeks. In no way does that mean that they will not be committed to the school's needs or the children's education. The change signifies that isn't true, enough parents want to be involved without the camping out and have said this is enough. We refuse to be excluded because we won't participate in a counterproductive line. It's time people stop calling the line a commitment, it was a silly ritual that proved to be unfair to the citizens of Chattanooga. Hopefully the integrity of the school will not change, only time will tell but the days of stating one parent is better than another because of a line needs to be over.

May 31, 2011 at 11:29 a.m.
dshinn said...

I think the important point here is that there is still a process for parents, it's just a different and hopefully a better process. I believe parents will be more informed about these schools by going through this process, and make a more informed decision, than with the former procedure. Parent commitment is still required, but it's nothing extreme, and each parent that completes those steps has an equal chance.

May 31, 2011 at 1:44 p.m.
volunteersone said...

I worked on the parent focus group on the CSAS/CSLA new admissions process. First and foremost, please know that an enormous amount of thought and time from parents, teachers, administrators and alums went into changing the admissions process.

I camped out for 2 days, 6 months pregnant, in 2004 to get a spot for my oldest son and it was a great experience. I enjoyed it. You have the opportunity to really know the parents that you will be with for years, in my case, decades, to come. I, for one, know that I hated to see the line go away but I also know that many people would struggle to spend the time I did in line.

The group I worked with really focused on the commitment and fairness aspect of the process. CSAS and CSLA expect a lot from their parents and the line helped ensure some commitment on the part of the families willing and able to brave the cold, rain, and frat boys. The new process requires commitment from prospective parents which I think will make up for not having the line.

I don't love the idea of a lottery, but there is fairness in in because everybody has a equal shot, not just the group at the front of the line. Making sure lottery applicants show commitment before throwing their applications into the hat should provide the schools with parents who are willing to be involved in their child's school in a way that a straight lottery might not.

I could go on and on. We have five kids. My husband graduated from CSAS in 1991. We don't have the facilities, the technology or the money that other schools, public or private, have and we still have a great school because of our philosophy, our teachers, our students, our administrators and our committed parents. The fact that there is this much hoopla around the admissions process every year for CSAS and CSLA makes it pretty obvious that there is a need and certainly a want for more schools like these. It's past the point of asking for more Paideia schools, it seems appropriate to demand them.

May 31, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.
Oz said...

A common theme seems to be parental involvement. Education works best with parental involvement in the school and at home. Every parent should be required to volunteer at least 4 hours per semester at the school their child attends.

May 31, 2011 at 4:56 p.m.
Leaf said...

I was hoping to send my children to CSAS when they were old enough and I would have camped out for as long as it took. Now, I don't know if I would enter them in the lottery, since I assume the quality of the school will be going down.

In American our obsession with fairness sometimes comes at the cost of the exceptional. Where every child is special and unique, none of them are. In our dumbed-down society it's better to be tall than smart, and now apparently it's better to be lucky than committed.

May 31, 2011 at 5:12 p.m.
kat1313 said...

Not sure where I posted my first response to this article so trying again. Instead of whether CSAS should be lottery or not, I think it would be more beneficial to wonder why parents do not wish their child to attend their zoned schools and why the school zones are set up how they are currently. Shouldn't ALL students in Hamilton County be offered the SAME education? One school shouldn't be "better" than the rest. I realize some of the magnet schools offer classes other than the "standard" classes. Reading, Math, Science, etc. should be the primary focus imo.

May 31, 2011 at 6:28 p.m.
dude_abides said...

Libertarians4Freedom... Everyone posting here actually cares about education, which you and your right wing neocon thug brethren would cut any and all monies for, so why don't you go pitch that tripe to your anti-education choir.

May 31, 2011 at 11:30 p.m.
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