Last two Chattanooga magnet schools switching to lottery for admission

Last two Chattanooga magnet schools switching to lottery for admission

May 31st, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

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/Times Free Press.

HOW TO APPLY

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 jgarrett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.