St. Paul’s school-choice lottery a big hit

A substantial majority of students will attend schools this fall that were either their first or second choice.

The early reviews on St. Paul’s school-choice lottery are in, and it’s a winner.

Of more than 9,200 students hoping to go to a school this fall outside their geographic zone or other than the local one to which they would be assigned, a large majority won their first or second choices for the 2013-14 year, the school board learned Tuesday.

The 2013-14 school year is the final year of a districtwide overhaul that puts renewed focus on neighborhood schools. The “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” plan will see more children attending elementary schools closer to home and then on to designated middle and high schools. It’s the first year in which elementary students participated in the choice lottery.

About 97 percent of kindergartners will attend one of their top two schools, with nearly 90 percent going to their first choice, said Jackie Turner, the district’s chief engagement officer.

And of about 5,600 lottery participants who will be attending first through 12th grades this fall, 69 percent got either their first or second choice — “an excellent start,” Turner said, even as she said she hopes to nudge that into the 70s next year.

School board members were delighted by the news. “It actually worked. This was great,” Elona Street-Stewart said.

They also were happy to learn that more than two-thirds of lottery participants provided their e-mail addresses, which will help the district establish contacts that can help with future enrollments, Turner said.

“Oftentimes, [schools] who families connect with first have a leg up from a marketing standpoint,” she said.

Starting March 22, more than 14,000 families were notified by mail and e-mail on whether their children had reserved school spots next year and the choices that remained.

Since then, Turner said, the district has received 400 to 500 comments, questions and complaints. Board Chair Jean O’Connell said that she had heard from one unhappy parent in Highland Park who didn’t get information on the lottery because her child attended a private school.

Before the meeting, Board Vice Chair Mary Doran, who has two children attending a Montessori elementary school, said she’d received two e-mails from parents in response to the notices. “With most things, when you go through it the first time, there’s some outliers,” she said. “As a board member, I’m telling people: Be patient.”

The 31 percent of the future 1-12th-graders who did not get their first or second choice now must wait to see if there will be openings April 12, when families are supposed to lock in their choices.

If they don’t get placed in their schools of choice, they will attend an assigned school in their geographic zone.

Schools with long waiting lists include perennial favorites such as St. Anthony Park Elementary and Central High — but also the high school grades at Washington Technology, which Turner noted has struggled to find students in the not-too-distant past.

“That’s pretty big news for Washington,” she said.

Students who remain in their zones can take school buses. But if students switch to schools outside their zones — the district is divided into six of them — most of them (there are exceptions) will have to find their own way there.

The reorganization was sparked by the recognition that students performed as well or better on standardized tests at neighborhood schools as they did at magnet schools.

Turner also reported the results of a new admissions strategy dubbed “Reflecting St. Paul,” which seeks to place students from “high-need neighborhoods” into open slots within 10 designated schools.

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