Charter School Admissions as Hard as Harvard?

This story is part of a series of posts on School Stories about the growth of charter schools and their effect on the public school system in the New York metro area.  Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, have been expanding rapidly in the city.



Parents and students wait to enter Democracy Prep Charter School's admissions lottery event in Harlem. Photo: Maura Walz/COVERING EDUCATION

About a hundred parents huddled in the rain in early April outside Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, anxious over the game of chance that was taking place inside.  Children’s names were being called out announcing the newest sixth grade class at Democracy Prep Charter School, one of Harlem’s 24 charter schools, and these families could not get inside to claim their seats.

Naomi Garcia had been counting on enrolling her 10-year-old daughter Tatyanna Hiciano at Democracy Prep for over a year.  She did the research, she weighed her options, and now there she was, waiting in the rain for the doors to open.  Enrolling her child in public school was beginning to feel inexplicably like shopping at a one-day-only fire sale.

Suddenly the doors opened again and the crowd pushed forward while a Democracy Prep teacher attempted in vain to usher families inside in an orderly fashion.  Garcia grabbed Tatyanna’s hand and bolted in.  “I’m excited,” Tatyanna said, grinning as she and her mother darted through the crowd and into the building.

But they weren’t quick enough.  Another teacher stopped them at the foyer.  The auditorium where the names were being called was filled to capacity.  Another few hundred people packed into the foyer, where the only option was to listen on an audio feed.   Garcia and Tatyanna couldn’t get in at all.

“Were the names already called?” Garcia repeated twice in a worried tone.  The teacher calmly explained that families didn’t need to be inside to claim their spot.  Parents could call the school the following day to find out if their name was called, she said, or if they were assigned a number on the wait list.

No matter how the odds were calculated, they were stacked against Tatyanna.  Democracy Prep only had room to accept seven percent of its 1500 applicants. It was statistically equally hard to gain admission to this Harlem charter school as it was to get into Harvard University.

At charter schools across the city, prospective students faced similarly packed crowds and disheartening odds.  Barely one-fifth of the 39,000 applicants to New York City charter schools would learn their names had been chosen during a marathon week of admissions lotteries held around New York City the first week of April.

The unprecedented demand for many charters in the city made admission to the schools a faint hope for many students and their parents, especially for those who don’t live in a neighborhood like Harlem with a plethora of charter options. At the same time, charter school administrators pointed to the crowds of disappointed families as proof that the charter school movement needed more unfettered freedom to grow. Some had already formed plans to mobilize the hundreds of rejected families into a lobbying force.

“This is about welcoming the students and families who were selected, and also to tell the families who weren’t, you can do something about it,” said Seth Andrews, the founder and head of Democracy Prep, as he handed parents pre-stamped postcards addressed to City Council members and state legislators lobbying for more charters and better funding.

The April admissions lotteries around the city dramatically illustrated how rapidly New York’s charter schools have evolved into an overnight sensation on the landscape of public school alternatives. They are well-publicized, sought-after, politically active educational institutions.  But what are the consequences of all the hype for families hoping to enroll their child in a charter?  And does the state law that gives preference to neighborhood kids undermine the charters’ mission to provide a marketplace of choices for parents?

Our reporters visited the April charter lotteries in three boroughs—the Bronx Charter School for Excellence and Brooklyn’s Brownsville Collegiate Charter School and Democracy Prep in Harlem.  Jamie Oppenheim visited a lottery in the northeast Bronx where the names of out-of-district students didn’t even make it into the bingo wheel.  Paul Stephens found a lottery held only to determine rank on the wait list for a new charter in Brownsville, Brooklyn.  And in Harlem, Maura Walz reported on the pandemonium that erupts at a lottery event where more than 90 percent of families must leave disappointed.

At all three schools, this year’s lotteries showed that when high demand meets low odds in random public school admissions, the result can be a potent brew of confusion and disappointment for parents and possible political opportunity for charter school advocates.

Listen to a radio dispatch from Democracy Prep Charter School’s admissions lottery event in Harlem

Bronx Charter School for Excellence

It was appropriate that the Bronx Charter School for Excellence held its lottery inside St. Paul’s Evangelical Church in Parkchester. The 50 parents and small children sitting on the church’s wooden pews that evening in April pretty much needed divine intervention to be one of the 38 names called.

Parents faced the altar where a spinning bingo wheel was perched on a table in front of the pulpit. It spun with 159 orange cards, each with the names of prospective new kindergartners from the immediate neighborhood.

Pamela Fairclough, the charter school’s administrator, plucked 38 cards from the whirling wheel and handed them to the school’s principal, Cahrlene Reid. As Reid read aloud the names, a few muffled cheers and heavy sighs rose from the crowd.

These 159 families all vied for 38 spots in one of next year’s two kindergarten classes. About 200 applications didn’t make it into the drum. Those applicants lived  outside of the school’s district.

On the whole, the kindergarten through fifth grade school received 973 applications for all grades, twice as many as last year, but kindergarten was the only grade with confirmed openings.

The school’s only requirement for admission was an application that had to be submitted by April 1. The other unofficial requirement was a parental form. Throughout the school year the Bronx Charter School for Excellence held three open houses, but none of them were mandatory.

Officials in the four-year old charter school won’t know if it will be able to accept students from the wait list into other grades until later this year when it confirms the number of students that plan to return, Fairclough said.  Families would receive a letter indicating their number on the list within a week of the lottery.

School District 11 encompasses a large swath of the Northeast Bronx, enclosed by the Bruckner Expressway on one side, the Bronx River Expressway on the other and hugged by Baychester to the north and Castle Hill to the south. The neighborhood’s highest median household incomes float between $30,000 to $40,000 and 39 percent of residents receive some form of public assistance. More than half of its residents are Hispanic and 33 percent are black, according to census data. Within its borders are 57 schools, two of them are charters.

The largest concentration of charter schools is the cluster of six in District 9 in the South Bronx, which encompasses Highbridge and University Heights. Twenty three out of the Bronx’s 367 public schools are charter schools.

Only a few families left Tuesday night’s lottery feeling that their children will be attending the school they hoped for. Most parents, like Sarah Martinez, walked out feeling a little dejected.

“I’m very disappointed and a little heart broken. I had submitted this application months ago,” said Martinez, a District 11 parent. “That’s why I didn’t bring my son tonight, so he didn’t have to feel that disappointment.”

Martinez is currently hedging her bets.  Even being a parent living in the community school district of the charter school did not guarantee her a spot.

She applied to two other charter school lotteries, the Bronx School for Better Learning, the only other charter school in District 11, and the brand new Bronx Community Charter School on Webster Avenue in District 10. Bronx Charter School For Excellence was their first choice, she said. If neither of those schools work out she said she has a back-up plan—P.S. 86, the traditional public school in Kingsbridge.

P.S. 86 received an “A” on its New York City Department of Education progress report card last school year; 49 percent of the school’s fourth graders performed at or above grade level in English, and 59 percent were proficient in math.

“He’s not going to his zoned school, P.S. 78,” Martinez said. “His zone school is bad. When you look up the report card it was “C’s” and “D’s.”

Thirty-eight percent of the fourth grade students in P.S. 78 were proficient in English, and 57 percent performed on grade level in math. The school received a “C” on its citywide report card last year. By contrast, 47 percent of fourth graders in The Bronx Charter School for Excellence were proficient in English, and 79 percent worked on grade level in math.

Martinez, like many of the other parents at the lottery, heard about the school through a friend. When Martinez checked out the school with her son, she knew this was the school for him.

To attract applicants, the school took out ads in the Bronx News, a local newspaper, Fairclough said, but the school mostly relied on word of mouth.

The few families that were selected counted their blessings.  Brian McCreesh and Michella McKenzie were one of the lucky ones. They left St. Paul’s with a win. McCreesh said he didn’t expect to win because of the number of applicants. McKenzie told him she did.  “I had faith,” she said.

Currently, their son attends a nearby Catholic School, St. Helena, but the couple said the school is too expensive. McCreesh, a Catholic school graduate, said his son’s school costs as much as the Catholic high school he attended when he was younger.

When the couple visited the school, they were impressed by the level of reading skills among the kindergartners.

Although they have a school for their son until middle school, they said they still worry about high school. The couple said they would most likely move out of New York City when it comes time for that because of the city’s poor public school system as she perceives it and the city’s high cost of living.

Rose Quinones walked away Tuesday night with fewer options for her son.  Her hopes were dashed when the school administrators told her how impossible the odds were of getting picked. Quinones lives in School District 8 in the Castle Hill area of the Bronx, rendering her out of area when it came to be chosen. But she waited with her son just the same until his name was called for the wait list.

“Well, I guess we’re going back to St. Helena,” she said, staring at her son.

Quinones, whose son also attends St. Helena, said she pays more than $500 a month on school tuition and after-school care, so she was also looking to the Bronx Charter School for Excellence as a way of cutting costs.

“It’s a shame that a good education is so expensive,” she said. “We pay so much in taxes but the public schools aren’t that great.”

Unlike other parents who are able to apply to several lotteries out of district, Quinones is bound by the fact that she’s a single mother. Distance and after school programs weigh heavily on her decision on where to send her son to school.

District 8 is home to four charter schools, but she preferred Bronx Charter School for Excellence. She did not apply to any others. “I’m a little disappointed. I came in with some hopes,” she said “I feel like the lottery should be more of a ratio. I feel like a majority should go to students in the district.”

As charter schools expand across the city, the culture of school choice is expanding with them.  But charters are increasingly becoming more like neighborhood schools, and choices for parent have become more limited because of the state’s requirement that students from the community district have priority admission.  The New York legislature amended the state charter law in 2007 to double the number of charter schools allowed to operate around the state.  As part of the measure the legislature also required that all charter schools give admissions preference to applicants from the community school district where the charter school is located.

Before the change, all students enrolled in New York City Public schools had an equal chance of getting into any charter school in the city.  Now charters increasingly fill with applicants from the immediate neighborhood.  Lotteries cannot ensure that students in districts without many charter options have an equal shot at choosing a charter school.

Many charter school advocates say this change was unfair to charter schools and to families who want their children to attend a charter.

“It disenfranchises someone who wants to go to the school and has to go to the back of the line because they live in the neighborhood but not in the district,” said Peter Murphy, Director of Policy and Communications at the New York State Charter School Association. “It’s an artificial barrier.”  Murphy said that the community district preference should be optional.

Brownsville Collegiate Charter School, Brownsville, Brooklyn

In Brooklyn, the mandate for admissions preference to neighborhood kids created a lottery where the stakes felt high but even the winners felt like losers.   At the lottery for the Brownsville Collegiate Charter School, most of the admissions decisions had already been determined through the preference system. The lottery was only for one spot on the waiting list, not for a spot in the school.

As the lottery began, Deshawn Patterson tapped her husband’s shoulder and showed him her crossed fingers. She was hoping her son Houston would be a member of the class of 2018, as the incoming sixth grade is called—a not-so-subtle reminder to the parents in attendance, all of them African-American, that these children were expected to graduate from college down the line. Children tapped their feet nervously beneath the tables. All eyes were on the rolling barrel of name cards and the list of new students being displayed on a projector at the front of the hall.

In the hushed room, the new school’s principal carefully explained that all of the spots in the 5th and 6th grades next year were already filled by children with priority admissions status.

All of the 67 spots for the fifth grade class were filled automatically by students who qualified for priority admission because they fell into one of three groups: children who attend a failing school in the district; students who attend a failing school outside the district; and students who are from the district but do not attend a failing school. For the sixth grade class, the numbers were similar: 25 spots were filled by 15 from the first group and nine were drawn by lottery from the third. The school had received 113 applications for the fifth grade and 106 for the sixth grade class.

Jessica Simmons, founding principal, thought that the priority admissions were good, because more students from the community will be attending. She said she knew there was a lot of disappointment that evening, but she said, “If we could accept as many people we had applications we got then we wouldn’t be a small school.”

Because the school will be housed in a traditional public school, the school administrators had only found out the previous week from the Department of Education how many spots they would have available for next year.

The priority admission for children from failing schools was designed to accommodate students who attend P.S. 150, where the school will be housed. P.S. 150 was slated to close until the education department reversed that decision earlier this month. The middle school will still be phased out.

Bret Peiser, managing director of Collegiate Charter Schools, said that since legislature mandated the admissions preferences, the lottery was the least meaningful step of the admissions process.  Most of the students were admitted because they live in the neighborhood where the charter schools are located rather than because their names were called in a lottery.

By the end of the night, the principal was still calling out names on the wait list and Houston Patterson was not yet on it.  “He’s disappointed,” his mother said, “but the process was very fair.” The Pattersons had applied to the school when it was initially planned for their school district. It was later opened in another district, but they still held out hope.

The school had distributed more than 4,000 applications throughout the neighborhood via mass mailings, the internet, and door-to-door canvassing. Their efforts were meant to ensure that they received applications from all families, not just those who were in the know. “Sixty people spent an entire Saturday going out to housing projects and pounding the pavement to get the application out there,” Peiser said.

Many parents peppered Peiser with questions about the likelihood of their child being moved off the wait list. One woman approached him saying the  Catholic school admissions would be closed that week, but her son was 14 on the wait list. What should she do?

He couldn’t make any guarantees.

“Those are the stories that are sort of painful,” he said.

Democracy Prep Charter School, Harlem

In Harlem, the lottery to select students for Democracy Prep Charter School could not logistically be held in public. The number of applications was too high. It would take hours to draw each of the 1500 names out of the drum. So the school conducted a private lottery on April 3, overseen by an auditing firm to ensure the process was conducted fairly.  The list was announced publicly three days later, during a well-publicized lottery event.


Parents and children wait to enter Democracy Prep Charter School's admissions lottery event in Harlem. Photo: Maura Walz / COVERING EDUCATION

Families had to arrive well before the 6 p.m. start time to get a seat inside the auditorium where current students and teachers read out the names of the newest class of “Democracy Prep scholars.”

Yvonne Preyor and her grandson Christopher Mason, 10, arrived too late to get inside the auditorium for the show.  But they did manage to get into the lobby, waiting with nearly 200 other people and listening to an audio feed of the list of accepted students.  Names were read aloud—25 at a time. Preyor and Christopher listened patiently as name after name ticked off the list.

Eight names came and went, and then came the name they were waiting to hear.

“I’m so happy that he got in–so happy,” Preyor said.  “I am thrilled.”

Preyor said that she had submitted applications to two other charters as well, but that Democracy Prep was Christopher’s first choice.  Christopher currently attends Community School 200 in Harlem’s notoriously troubled District 5, but his grandmother said that she was set on sending him to a charter school for middle school. She had done her research. She saw presentations and met teachers from the schools at the Harlem Education Fair in March and spent time online researching school performance.

“I found the charter schools offer smaller classes, more intense education, an emphasis on math and English and individualized instruction,” she said.

Christopher had also chosen Democracy Prep as his favorite, but he couldn’t quite land on the reason why.

“They had the highest–what was it?  That bar thing,” he asked, looking up at his grandmother.

“Scores on the math exams!” she replied, beaming at him.

Nearby, parent Sandra Feliciano said she had mixed feelings about the lottery’s outcome.  Her son Christopher already attends eighth grade at the school, and so her daughter Samantha was admitted through the sibling preference system.  But Samantha’s best friend was number 122 on the list, just missing a spot and landing on the waitlist.  She was disappointed, but Feliciano said she thought the process was clear and equitable.

“If you get picked, you get happy and if you don’t, you feel like it’s unfair,” Feliciano said.  “But it’s not—that’s how the lottery works.  Chances are you have to be lucky.”

Each year in Democracy Prep’s three-year existence, the number of applications has climbed exponentially.  In the school’s first lottery, two years ago, 500 families submitted applications for the school’s one hundred open spots.  Last year, the school received 800 applications, just under half the number received for this year’s openings.

Democracy Prep’s application asks for a student’s and family’s name and address, whether or not they live in Harlem’s District 5 and whether or not they have a sibling already enrolled in the school.  Duffy also stressed that the school has actively tried to remove hurdles to applying.

“If we had an application tossed to the school as a paper airplane, we’d take it,” Duffy said.

In fact, Duffy said, Democracy Prep’s recruitment efforts are primarily focused on a group of students generally considered to be far from the “cream of the crop” and also generally considered a population underserved by charter schools—special education students.

The founder of the school, Seth Andrew, has a learning disability, so part of his vision of the school is to recruit children with special needs.   The school has two full-time recruitment coordinators who work year-round, and part of their job is to reach out to students and parents in special education programs in zoned schools.

The result of their work, Duffy said, is that 22 percent of students enrolled at the school are special education students, a much higher number than special education enrollment figures at other high performing charter schools.

Duffy said that despite the huge increase in interest in the school this year, she remained confident that the percentage of special education students who enroll next year would not drop because of the amount of targeted marketing that the school does to students and parents in special education programs.

“But we won’t really know until the end of the first week of classes in the fall,” she said.  “That’s the only time when we really can tell how the enrollment numbers have finally shaken out.”

Following the change in state law on charters, last year the school instituted a change in its lottery procedure.  Though all students’ names are drawn in the lottery, the names of students who live in Harlem’s District 5 school zone and students with older siblings already enrolled in the school get bumped to the front of the list.

The current sixth grade class at Democracy Prep was the first class whose admissions were affected by the preferences, and Duffy said that the result was that the majority of the students are now from the neighborhood.  The first two classes, admitted at the school before the change in law requiring zoned preferences, were much more geographically heterogeneous, Duffy said.  Now it’s nearly impossible for students who live outside District 5 to attend the school, though Duffy said some out-of-district students are admitted from the waitlist.

She also said that the change has meant some demographic changes in the student population.   The percentage of African American students rose, while the percentage of students for whom English is not their first language dropped.

More than three-quarters of Democracy Prep’s students are African American, and about a fifth to a quarter are Hispanic.  More than 80 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“Our demographics don’t look all that different from the traditional schools in this neighborhood,” Duffy said.

Not everyone at the lottery event hoping for a spot at the school was from the neighborhood.  Sharon Baker came from Queens with her son Issay, 12, hoping for one of the most coveted prizes of the evening—one of only ten spots opening in the eighth grade.  The two left disappointed without even learning their position on the wait list.

Duffy said that stories like the Bakers’ both saddened and motivated her.  She responded to the crowds by grabbing a list of accepted students and running outside to read the list of names to families who couldn’t get into the building.

“The really great thing was that there were families outside who were on the list,” she said.  “That’s the only reason this was an okay night.”

For the families like the Bakers that weren’t on the list, Duffy and the other teachers and administrators at Democracy Prep had some advice: contact their elected representatives and ask for more charters.

“They’re going to call Albany and they’re going to say, ‘we need more of this,’” Duffy said.  “We can’t accommodate all the kids we want right now, but the best thing we can do is tell people in Albany that we want more schools like this.”

School administrators came to the lottery prepared to help parents make those calls.  They handed out postcards addressed to state legislators calling for more funding for charters in the state budget and encouraged parents to call their City Council members.  Earlier in the day, Democracy Prep students had testified at a City Council education committee hearing on charter school facilities.

Advocates for charters said that schools’ political activism was a natural outgrowth of their success and desire to expand.

“It shouldn’t surprise anybody that school leaders are pointing to these numbers as evidence that there is growing demand for these schools and that policies that provide inequitable funding mechanism for charter schools or question their right or access to public space are wrong,” said Jeff Maclin, Vice President of Communications for the New York Center for Charter School Excellence.

Cynthia Proctor, spokesperson for the charter authorizer SUNY Charter Institute, said that when granting charters the institute looks at waiting lists as a sign of community support. Charter schools also gather letters of support and petitions from the community.

“In New York City, the existing charter schools have such long waiting lists, it’s hard not to find support for new schools,” she said.

Jeff Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University Teacher’s College, said that it is not problematic if charter school advocates use lotteries as a way to show legislators that there is demand for these schools in hopes of leveraging more resources.  It’s only wrong if schools are misleading prospective parents about their chances of getting picked in the lottery as a way of enticing them to show up.

Henig said that even though the many lotteries no longer ensure that every student in the city has an equal chance of enrolling, no matter where they live, the events are still essential to the charter school admissions process.

“The real rationale for the lottery was to make sure charter schools didn’t cream off the most desirable student,” Henig said. “So that’s the public assurance that that’s taking place.”

Many parents at the lottery said they knew their chances were small, but that knowledge did not stop them from getting their hopes up.

Naomi Garcia and her daughter Tatyanna Hiciano, who were shut out of the building and left without knowing if Tatyanna had a place at the school, said they would keep their hopes up for another day.

“We’ll call tomorrow,” she said.  “But this makes me so nervous I feel sick.”

Tagged as: , , , , ,

1 Comment


  1. Robinson Crusoé » IDEA Public Schools

Leave a Response