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Dec 2004 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

Magnet-School Gamble
By Maryanne Dersch

I have been known to roll the dice a few times in my life...mostly in casinos at craps tables. This spring, I rolled the dice on my kid's education — I entered the St. Louis Public Schools magnet school lottery system.

There are more kids who want to attend magnet schools than room in the schools, so we all apply and wait for the luck of the draw. Once you are in, though, you are in for good, so all it takes is for your number to come up once.

The problem was, I was hearing conflicting reports about whether the lottery system was really based on a lottery, or if politics influenced the decision.

SLPS Decision Machine Once, after a meeting where I had mentioned I was looking to get my son into magnet school, a woman pulled me aside and told me that the system wasn't exclusively based on a lottery. "Those magnets schools are successful because of the strength of the families that send their kids there, so you go to those schools and show them you are a nice family, and that you care about your son's education." that's how you play, I thought.

I took her advice and last December we visited two schools that were tops on our list: Wilkinson and Dewey International Studies. The tours only confused us even more. When we went to Dewey, the staff acted like the whole thing was a done deal. "Patrick will be joining us next year," they would say to other staff members. Jon and I were confounded. "Isn't this a lottery?" we thought, but we didn't ask the question. The whole thing seemed slightly off.

Instead of giving a personal tour, Wilkinson invited us to an open house. We were the first family to arrive. We asked more questions this time, and got to meet other parents. They all loved the school. I even asked them how they got in. They all said lottery. The staff was more up front about the whole issue, and didn't give any assurances or make any promises. "We'd love to have you," they said. "Make sure you get your application in on time."

Both schools were wonderful, and I thought Patrick would thrive in either.

So we sent off the application and left it all up to the school selection gods. According to the literature, my son was third on the priority list (first: kids moving from other magnet schools, second: siblings of kids in the system, third: African-American students in the city, fourth: non-African-American students in the city and county.)

On March 16, I went to the Recruitment and Counseling Office to find out our status. After all my asking and visiting and well, brown-nosing, he didn't make it...seventh on the waiting list for Wilkinson, 28th on the waiting list for Dewey.

So, now what? Well, the next day I called the Recruitment and Counseling Office, and, I have to say, was neither recruited nor counseled. The women I spoke with were hesitant to disclose any information. I just wanted to know if seven was a good I need to look elsewhere? They said they couldn't help. I was feeling lost and confused. Why didn't anyone want to educate my kid? Why didn't anyone seem to care about this situation?

I called Wilkinson and got the same run around there. "We can't tell you if you will make it in," the woman said. "I am not asking you to tell me that," I said, "Just tell me how far you usually get down the list...2, 5, 20?" She said she couldn't say but just to know that I was very lucky to be seventh.

Wow, thanks for the help. I am so relieved.

Later that week I remember listening to KWMU and the journalists' roundtable. Someone on the panel was complaining that city parents were abandoning the public schools. "I am not trying to abandon them, they just won't have us," I remember thinking. "I would gladly support them if they would only let us in!"

We did consider sending him to the local public school. I mean, it's kindergarten; how bad could it be? But we were told over and over that it's not a quality education and you don't want to take those kinds of chances. I am not into taking chances. My son was adopted two years ago and was almost two years behind developmentally. Thanks to an army of great speech therapists and an amazing daycare, he is back on track. Having worked so hard to get him to catch up, we were reluctant to put him in anything but a first-rate learning situation.

So we started looking at private schools.

After talking with a lot of people I realized something about this town: there are a lot of really great private grade schools around. We decided on St. Roch's, which had the diversity we were looking for and terrific staff. Everyone we met there, parents and teachers alike, loved it. We went ahead and enrolled him.

We love St. Roch's, and think Patrick would have a great education there, but the civic activist in me would love a chance at the public school system. I believe change happens best when working from within, and I would love to support that system and try to make it better. But so far, I am on the outside.

There are lots of families like mine, wanting a good education, loving the city, counting on the luck of the magnet lottery. Many of them leave the city for a better public education; many pay private school tuition. All of us would love a quality public education without lotteries, but it hasn't happened yet.

So now we wait. If we get the call for magnet, we will send him. Even the first day or so after school starts, we'd make the move. After that, we will be committed to a private education.

This isn't the picturesque way I had envisioned him starting kindergarten. The lottery system, and subsequent waiting list, takes all control from parents and leaves us hanging in indecision. Will we get the call? If not, what are our alternatives? How can I best educate my child in a city with struggling a public education system on the brink?

Luck — it may be fine for gambling, but it's a terrible way to choose your child's education.

Maryanne Dersch's son Patrick's number came up later in the school year, and he is now a student at Dewey International Studies elementary school; Maryanne is busily raising funds to provide the school with a playground.

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