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While the question of whether students will attend school in person next fall — or even next month — is up in the air, parents can still consider the growing number of "choice schools" available to Hamilton County students outside of their zoned school.

For the 2021-22 school year, parents can choose from nine magnet schools, 11 open enrollment schools, five early college programs and 30 career-oriented high school programs known as Future Ready Institutes.

The deadline to submit school choice lottery applications is Jan. 31. Here's what you need to know.

 

1. School choice options include two new open enrollment schools and one new Future Ready Institute.

In late 2020 the Hamilton County school board approved opening enrollment to Loftis Middle School and Ooltewah Middle School to the entire district.

"We look for schools that have space and programs that might appeal to students and families in the community," said Lindy Matthews, school choice facilitator for Hamilton County Schools, of the decision to open a school's enrollment to the district. "For example, Loftis has a very strong, rigorous academic program, and Ooltewah Middle has exciting opportunities around innovation and eLabs. Another example is Rivermont, which has a strong STEM program."

Rivermont Elementary was the first school to open enrollment to all of Hamilton County and began accepting out-of-zone students three years ago. Since then, the district has opened enrollment to 10 other schools, including Loftis and Ooltewah middle schools.

More than 350 out-of-zone students were enrolled in the district's open enrollment schools through the school lottery application process for the 2020-21 school year, Matthews said.

In addition to the 29 existing Future Ready Institutes located within 13 zone high schools in the district, Hamilton County is adding the Institute of Social Media, Marketing and Sports Management at Red Bank High School.

 

2. The district now provides transportation to Future Ready Institutes for out-of-zone students.

Starting in August 2020, Hamilton County Schools began providing bus transportation to students who attend Future Ready Institutes outside of their zone. Students take the bus from one of eight hub sites across the county to the central hub at STEM School, then take a bus to their choice school.

Transportation is not provided to open enrollment schools aside from Howard Connect Academy, which provides bus service from central locations.

SCHOOL CHOICE ADMISSIONS TIMELINE

- Jan. 31: Priority deadline for choice lottery application

- Feb. 8: Lottery

- Feb. 15: Lottery results shared with families

- Feb. 24: Deadline for families to respond to offer

- March 1: Choice application reopens

 

3. Each choice school is hosting virtual events or school tours this month to showcase their school.

The school choice fair originally planned for early January likely will not happen this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, Hamilton County School Communications Officer Cody Patterson said. Information about each school is available on the individual school's website or social media accounts.

Parents can also watch the HCS School Choice special hosted by the local PBS station Thursday, Jan. 7, at 8 p.m. The special will highlight all of the district's choice options, and share information on what's new and how to apply. Families will also have the opportunity to call in with their questions, Patterson said.

 

4. All school choice options use the same application and follow the same admissions timeline.

Parents of students now enrolled in Hamilton County Schools who are interested in applying for a school choice option can apply through the PowerSchool Parent Portal, which prevents them from having to re-enter information already in the system.

Parents whose students are new to the district can apply by visiting hcde.org/choosehamilton, creating a PowerSchool enrollment account and completing the choice application.

Schools with more applicants than space available will participate in a lottery on Feb. 8 to select students for the open slots.

Applicants are not required to apply for more than one choice option, which is a change from previous years when parents were required to rank three options.

Parents can also apply for Hamilton County Virtual School through the lottery application process.

"However, there is a follow-up screening process that will help the school and the family determine whether the virtual school is an appropriate choice for the student," Patterson said.

All choice schools now offer the option to choose between in-person/hybrid learning and HCS at Home, in which students learn in a remote setting connected to their home school, but the options offered next year will depend on COVID-19 restrictions, Patterson said.

 

5. The district is switching to a balanced lottery system for admission to its most popular choice schools.

This year, the district will run a balanced lottery for kindergarten admission to Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts and Normal Park.

The balanced lottery will admit a percentage of applicants from each zone rather than awarding spots randomly. That means students who live in zones where fewer students are applying to their choice school have a better chance of being admitted.

The goal of using a balanced lottery is to increase diversity of the student population in the district's magnet schools to be more reflective of the district as a whole, Matthews said.

STEM School is also running a balanced lottery for ninth grade admission, as it has since the school opened in 2012.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com.

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