Cries of anguish and joy rang out across San Antonio ISD on Tuesday, February 19, as the district announced the lottery results for its specialized schools. OK, those cries were mostly in the form of online chatter, but boy were people excited — or disappointed.
“My hopes are dashed,” one parent wrote on Facebook after her kids were waitlisted at Steele Montessori Academy on the South East Side.
“Feeling very lucky!” wrote another, whose daughter had been offered a pre-K spot at the Advanced Learning Academy downtown.
As is the habit of online conversation, the hand-wringing was significantly more prominent than the celebration. There were also just a lot more families waitlisted than accepted.
But it may make some parents feel a little better to know who else has been waitlisted by San Antonio ISD. School board members. Journalists. Political consultants. The mayor.
Yep. Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s son Jonah was waitlisted for the Young Men’s Leadership Academy earlier in the year. The waitlist at that school is short, so he was able to get in sooner than later, but Nirenberg said he and his wife Erika Prosper knew they may need a backup plan.
“Our experience was pretty typical for an average family,” Nirenberg said. “I was pleased that we were treated fairly [and] not with any special exceptions. It gave me confidence that the process that SAISD uses to enroll students is fair and equitable.”
Nirenberg found his time on the waitlist strangely reassuring, “not just as a dad but as a neighbor in a city where kids need high-quality educational options.” See, there’s no VIP pass to get into SAISD’s specialized schools or magnet programs.
Schools with special curriculums like Montessori, dual-language and high-tech career training have become extremely popular around the country, and SAISD didn’t miss the boat.
The lottery for its non-traditional schools and magnet programs was intensely overfilled in some schools, like Steele, the Advanced Learning Academy and Twain Dual Language Academy. All in all, SAISD’s 27 choice programs received 9,958 applications, according to an open records request from the district. Only 2,930 seats were available through the lottery, and the rest went to waitlists.
“Good Luck to Them!”
Before we get deeper into this, let’s pause and appreciate the fact that people are anguishing like this over SAISD schools. As suburban districts and charter networks expand, SAISD has been losing kids faster than kids lose, well, everything.
But now the students are coming back. They’re actually falling all over themselves to come back. At the rate of two to three new schools and magnets per year, the district can’t keep up with demand.
Naturally, some people might assume that no lottery is truly blind, that there’s always a back door for the likes of, say, politicians, prominent local developers or even a humble journalist who writes about the school system day in, day out. (Ahem.)
Not so, says enrollment czar Mohammed Choudhury. Speaking recently to a group of parents Choudhury said he’s gotten pressure from local VIPs to create loopholes for them in the enrollment system. They’ll shoot him and email, or casually mention that they or a friend have enrolled their kid in the lottery. He knows they expect him to take certain action — to handle their application personally and shepherd it through the lottery into their top choices.
“That’s not going to happen,” Choudhury said.
His pat email response to those mentions: “Good luck to them!”
If parents call Choudhury’s office asking to jump the waitlist, they get their waitlist number and a mini-lecture on equity.
Occasionally, campus leaders accustomed to what Choudhury calls “the old way” of opening back doors have even tried to circumvent the enrollment office’s rigid policies.
Emails obtained through an open records request show that the administration of Twain Dual Language Academy tried to enroll some families mid-year. Those families were from KIPP, a local charter that has been taking in would-be SAISD kids for years. Getting them back would have been a major coup, and the administration assumed it would have full support from the superintendent and the office of access and enrollment.
Tricia Baumer, senior director of SAISD’s office of access and enrollment, shut that down quick. Coup or no coup.
“We have to apply standard ways in which students are accepted to our Choice Schools and Programs,” Baumer wrote. She then offered the administration two options “to preserve the integrity of the process” — everybody gets in or no one.
The schools could bring in their entire waitlist for the spots in question (and hire new teachers to accommodate them), or they could walk back whatever offers had been made.
Twain administrators complied. They sent offers to their entire Spanish-language waitlists in two grades. In the end, only three additional students enrolled. But it’s easy to imagine the sweaty moments waiting to see what the influx would be.
Equity crisis averted.
Superintendent Pedro Martinez and the SAISD board support the no-exceptions system, according to Choudhury.
And, in supporting it, SAISD trustee Steve Lecholop said, they have to play by the same rules. His daughter is currently on the waitlist at the Advanced Learning Academy, his and his wife’s first choice.
“SAISD is committed to an objective, fair and impartial process to all of our choice schools,” Lecholop said. “That means no one gets special treatment, including me. I’m OK with that.”
Lecholop’s daughter did get into Steele, the family’s third choice. He said he’s not sure whether they’ll take that spot or go to their neighborhood school, Bonham Academy, where he trusts current campus leadership. He has until March 8 to decide.
Most of SAISD’s specialized schools follow a 50-50 rule to integrate economically disadvantaged and middle-class students, a research-based method to create more equitable learning environments. Critics charge that SAISD is only catering to the middle class with its specialized schools, however.
John and Niki Burnam are the exact kind of young family you’d expect to see flooding the specialized-school programs. They are also foster parents to two young girls.
Their biological daughter, a pre-schooler, was waitlisted at the Advanced Learning Academy and Steele Montessori. Their foster daughter, a rising kindergartner, got into Young Women’s Leadership Academy — another competitive K-12 school, that will open its elementary grades for the first time in 2019. (The Leadership Academy doesn’t have pre-kindergarten, or their preschool daughter could have gotten in as a sibling.)
John Burnam, a partner at consulting firm Burnam/Gray which has run mayoral and City council campaigns, said his family’s outcome means the system worked as it should.
“It just shows that the lottery works,” he said. “The fact that we had one child get in and another not get in shows that it really is random. The kids that need to get in are getting in.”
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