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Kelly Lowman pauses while turning the drum so school board Chairman Mike Evatt can pick a lottery ticket for spots at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.
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Jonelle Olson watches as a lottery is held at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Monday evening for spots at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.
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Hamilton County magnet school students

It looked a lot like your typical game of Bingo -- though perhaps less exciting.

Pulling small cards out of a metal bin, Hamilton County Schools officials held their first-ever live lottery to select students for the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

The lottery represents a huge change of course for the CSAS and CSLA admission process, which for years had parents camping in line for weeks to snag a spot in two of the school systems most-popular magnet schools.

The live lottery lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours as officials drew small cards, each numbered with a corresponding student. Several hundred names were chosen for each school in order to establish a complete waiting list for each school.

About 25 parents and a few students quietly watched the lottery in person at the school district's central office. Some sighed or mumbled as numbers were selected, while others were busy sending text messages with their news. Many more watched the live-streamed event online.

School district leaders thought the tradition of waiting outdoors for CSAS and CSLA had grown out of hand, especially given concerns that it might leave out some families who were unable to donate large amounts of time to waiting in line.

So a committee of parents and educators examined the issue and made a recommendation for a live lottery for increased access and transparency.

"The committee really wanted something physical," said Karla Riddle, director of innovative programs, who oversees magnet schools. "They were very adamant that this lottery had to be public."

Families hoping to gain admittance to either school had to attend four events before officially applying for the lottery.

If school leaders deem this new process successful, they may use it for all the county's magnet schools. Currently, those magnet students are selected through a computerized drawing.

Even with the new system, the odds of getting in to either CSAS or CSLA are low. Siblings of current students and children of faculty members are given first pick even before the lottery.

About 230 students are vying for about 60 seats at CSAS, while about 217 students are vying for about 40 seats at CSLA. The number of available seats will decrease as children of faculty and siblings are added.


Magnet schools exist to provide school choice to families. Each have different specialties, such as environmental studies or fine arts. Most magnets draw students from an established attendance zone and also take magnet students from across the county. Some schools, like Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, have entirely magnet student populations, with no attendance zones.


Lottery results and a video replay of the lottery will be posted online today at

"It's not a real high chance," Riddle said. "But if you don't enter it, there's no chance."

And that's exactly the problem that Topher Kersting sees with the entire process. He was hoping to get his four-year-old daughter, currently zoned for Barger Academy of Fine Arts, into either CSLA or CSAS.

"It's a lot of hoops to jump through," he said. "And the number of parents wanting to get their kids in versus the number of spots seems way out of line. There's been too few slots for too many kids for years now."

Kersting's daughter drew one spot in the 80s and another higher than 100 -- too far from the top of the list that he has no expectation of admittance. He'll try again in the upcoming lottery for Normal Park Museum Magnet, also a popular magnet choice.

But if they don't secure a place there -- and he doesn't expect to -- Kersting said he'll look to enroll his daughter in private school.

He said he wonders why the success of CSLA and CSAS -- two of Hamilton County's highest-performing schools -- isn't being replicated elsewhere.

"If the system works at those two schools, why hasn't it been spun off to work at other places?" he said.

Riddle said much of that has to do with physical space. CSLA has only two kindergarten classes open each year and CSAS has three. There's is currently no other place to put a magnet program, she said, though she'd love it if she could.

"I could set up another school exactly like each of these and fill them up immediately," she said.

Regardless of what's asked of parents in the lottery process, Riddle expects the magnet process to remain competitive because of the success in those schools.

"People just want their children in a good school," she said.

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