Anxious Parents Try to Game System in San Francisco School Lottery

Robert Snavely, who applied to nearly 30 San Francisco elementary schools for his son, William. (Jon Brooks/KQED)

Thousands of San Francisco parents are on tenterhooks this week as they wait to find out which schools their kids have been assigned to in the first round of the school district’s lottery. The district sent out those letters last Friday.

Having gone through this last year, I know that telling anxious moms and dads to take it easy is useless. There's just too much at stake -- at least in the minds of parents who worry that getting into the wrong kindergarten could herald a life's worth of bad luck and missed opportunities, or at least slam the door on Stanford.

For thorough types, preparation for the school lottery can be especially time-consuming. Take Susan Zuckert, who researched schools before her daughter, Mira, went to kindergarten last year.

"I attended workshops given by Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco; I attended talks given by SFUSD, in particular the executive director of the educational placement center. I did a lot of reading. I studied the enrollment catalog. I went to the school district enrollment fair last year and the year before, to get some idea of what I'd be in for. I talked to a lot of parents. And I went on 26 school tours."

We didn't go on 26 tours; we settled for eight or nine before I decided I couldn't take seeing one more school vegetable garden. It didn't hurt us, though: We got our No. 1 choice.

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And I can tell you: Winning the lottery felt like, well, winning the lottery.

My wife, Molly, recalled the moment I told her the good news.

“It actually ranks with the time you called to tell me what gender our child was," she said. "And I remember I was like, ‘Did you read the letter right? Are you sure?' "

Sure I was sure. I'd read it eight times in a row, scouring for loopholes. We didn't think we'd had any chance of getting our top pick, because we had none of the advantages the school system doles out to certain families applying to certain schools.

How It Works

First you fill out an application listing all the schools you’d consider sending your kid to, in order of preference.

The school system's computer, a HAL-like presence in the minds of parents in search of some individual human consideration, gives advantages in the lottery, depending on which school and grade families are applying to and certain attributes of each household.

If your kid already has a sibling attending the school, for instance, you get a big leg up. For kindergarten, you also get a boost if you live in an area with low test scores or you actually live in the school’s official attendance area, among other factors.

Otherwise, the computer puts you into a random drawing for your listed schools and tries to assign you one of your choices.

And there are rounds. So if you don’t get the school you want at first, you can enter the lottery again and again, hoping someone will eventually drop out of the school you want and you’ll sneak in.

“The student assignment process is coined as the largest game of musical chairs that we know possible. Because it really comes down to seats and availability from school to school," says Masharika Prejean Maddison, executive director of Parents For Public Schools of San Francisco, an educational and advocacy group.

"The entire process, much to the bemoaning of parents, is an insanely and sometimes intolerably long process, from October to September of any given school year."

Odds Not So Bad

Prejean Maddison recommends expanding your list to more than just your top few choices. Because if you’re trying to get into one of the more popular schools, the odds are not great. Last year the most requested kindergarten was Clarendon. It had 61 applicants for each available seat. The San Francisco Chronicle reported it was easier to get into Harvard.

But most of the time -- 59 percent of the time in 2014 -- parents get their first choice. And 82 percent got some school on their list. Still, that left enough families getting shut out of their choices altogether for the transmission of horror stories to erupt on city playgrounds.

Elizabeth Drew, for instance, took no comfort in the statistics.

“I’ve heard some anecdotes, like people who’ve put 16 schools on their list and didn’t get any of them," she told me. “I know several people who’ve waited until the first week of school before their child got into a school that they were willing to attend. That would cause me a lot of anxiety.”

Drew is opting out of public school altogether, sending her daughter to private school.

Kim Brady, on the other hand, is optimistic about her chances. She's applying to all Spanish-immersion programs for her daughter, Caoilinn,  because she and her husband plan on moving to Mexico within a few years.

"I don’t feel stressed about it. I feel like there are spots available."

She does, however, know some who aren't so sanguine.

"We also have friends with older children, and they’ve gotten really stressed out for months of a time. I have heard of people buying second homes in areas by their school of choice so they can enroll their students there." (That wouldn't necessarily ensure their assignment  to that school, by the way.)

Robert Snavely says his family can't afford to do that, and he worries about his son, William, not getting any of the schools on his list, as copious as it is at nearly 30.

I asked him how the anxiety level was among his fellow parent-applicants at his preschool co-op.

"I'd say very high, very high," he said. "Many of (William's) classmates' families have decided to either have private school in their back pocket or just have that as their first option altogether, that it’s not worth rolling the dice to get a good school or a bad school."

When Snavely “rolled the dice” in this year’s lottery, he loaded them, just a little. Before the computer makes its final assignments in the first round, it completes "transfers," or more familiarly, engages in "swapping." That’s when Student A is initially assigned to a school that student B wants more, and vice versa. The computer then trades the two assignments.

"To be honest, Rooftop is probably not the best fit for our son," Snavely said, explaining his gambit. "It might have been fifth, but because it’s so highly ranked, we ranked it second, in case we don’t get Grattan. It’s our belief that the formula the district uses will help us switch back up to Grattan more easily. So it’s sort of holding a better bargaining chip."

Darlene Lim, the executive director of SFUSD's Educational Placement Center, says this particular strategy won't yield results.

"The transfer mechanism is dependent on what other students have as a tentative assignment going into the transfer process, and there can be no way of knowing or strategizing in order to maximize their chances of a swap," she said in an email.

Still, the word has gotten out that listing more schools will give you extra "swapping value," something SFUSD acknowledges. Susan Zuckert last year even put some schools on her list she wouldn't have considered sending her child to, just for this reason.

"There was a lot of talk about it, and at some point somebody did tell us, and they said statistically even if you have a bunch of schools in your application you don’t want, somebody else might want them, and if you got one, you would be further up in the swapping hierarchy."

SFUSD does not want you to do this -- put a school down that you have no intention of sending your child to. And Darlene Lim says there is really no way to game the algorithm.

"I tell parents it’s not a system where they have to strategize. And it was deliberately designed that way because of what we had in our old system. There was a lot of strategizing encouraged in our old system."

Maddison says she thinks parents have come to view swapping as a "silver bullet" for getting into their desired school. But she and Lim both stress that parents should keep it simple: List all the schools that they can envision their kids going to, then rank them in order of preference.

Maddison also says if there is any gaming that goes on, it’s important to narrow the knowledge gap among different populations of parents about how the lottery works.

"Consider the timing of school tours in comparison to when parents are working, the pathways people are sharing information. The options are limited based on timing, language capacity. It’s really important that moving forward when we’re talking about, is the system being gamed, we’re talking about how equitably information is shared across San Francisco."

And not everyone knows even the basics, Maddison says.

"We’ve heard parents say, 'Well, I just show up at the school closest to me on the first day, and that's it.' "

To get people up to speed, her organization offers workshops on the lottery in Spanish and Chinese in addition to English. Those workshops will continue for Round 2 -- for those parents who want to try for a preferable school to the one they were assigned in Round 1.

But really, no amount of preparation or statistics is going to assuage the anxiety of some parents where their kids are concerned. So something to consider: Several parents told me the school they didn’t particularly want turned out to be great. And one parent who did get her top choice ... ended up not liking it so much.

So maybe you’re not really a lottery winner or loser until your kid actually goes to school.

Update: Robert Snavely and Kim Brady are two who will have to keep that in mind. Snavely received his letter Monday. He got his fourth choice.

"I'm pretty bummed about it; my wife is more upbeat," he wrote me. "It's Jefferson, which is a good school, but it's not our neighborhood school -- 25 blocks away instead of one. We're probably going to hold out and hope to get a spot at Grattan, our neighborhood school."

Kim Brady also got the word -- her daughter was assigned to a Spanish-immersion program, but at a school -- Bret Harte -- she didn't even put on her list .

She'll be entering Round 2. "Rolling the dice again," she texted me.

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If parents want to go into Round 2 to try to get a better assignment, applications are due by April 10. If you like your Round 1 school, the deadline to register is also April 10. You can also do both -- register for your Round 1 school and go into Round 2. You will not be at a disadvantage in Round 2 if you register for your Round 1 school.

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