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Against rules, some schools plan to lay low and screen students

Here’s another set of folks not being swept along by the rising tide of transparency: Schools that want to admit children according to their own preferences, not the Department of Education’s rules.

DOE policy prohibits elementary schools from giving preference in kindergarten admissions to children attending the schools’ own pre-K programs. But some schools are hoping to escape having to follow the rules simply by not being forthcoming about how they admit their students, according to a report posted today on the Times’ City Room blog. Elissa Gootman writes:

But one official at a popular elementary school that picks students by lottery said the school intended to give priority to this year’s prekindergartners anyway, insisting that the school not be named so it might “fly under the radar” and avoid City Hall’s attention.

I’m also hearing that some non-lottery schools are considering quietly exploiting a loophole in new DOE rules about kindergarten admissions as they register next fall’s kindergarten classes.

Most elementary schools guarantee admission to children who live in their zone but have extra seats to fill once they register all of the zoned children who want to attend. How those remaining seats are filled has varied from school to school and district to district in the past, but in general, principals have had considerable discretion to select families. Some schools, like the one in the City Room article, have given preference to continuing pre-K students. Others picked kids that they hoped would boost test scores. And some principals have used their discretion to add racial and economic diversity to their schools.

This year, new guidelines from the DOE aim to replace principals’ discretion with random lotteries, tiered according to different categories of students. (For example, children who live outside the zone but within the district would be chosen before a child who lives in another district could be selected.) The new rules are supposed to make applying for kindergarten less stressful for families, DOE spokesman Andy Jacob told me.

But the new guidelines contain a major loophole, according to Robin Aronow, a consultant who helps families apply to public and private schools: They leave it up to schools to conduct their own lotteries.

“Any random process that’s not done in front of the public — there’s a chance that it’s not being done randomly,” Aronow said.

Jacob said there’s no requirement that schools conduct their lotteries publicly. But he said that the DOE would “follow up” with any school it hears is not following the new guidelines.

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