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Political, parenting strategies align at Harlem Success lottery

A line of parents that wrapped around the block, blue and orange balloons, and a carefully choreographed program greetged hopeful families and political supporters last night at the admission event for the four Harlem Success Network charter schools. In addition to the main event, the naming of admitted students, the evening featured a barnstorming speech by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (in the video above), a surprise announcement about charter school funding from State Sen. Malcolm Smith, and political exhortations from Eva Moskowitz, Harlem Success’s lightning rod CEO. 

“I wish we could open them faster and have spots for absolutely everyone,” Moskowitz said about her schools to the thousands of assembled parents. But she said, “There are special interests and even elected officials who don’t support the growth of charter schools.” Moskowitz has sparred for years with the teachers union over her aggressive school reform strategies.

For the thousands of parents in attendance, politics took a distant second to anxiety about whether their children would be among the 475 selected from the 3,500 entered into the lottery. Every lucky family got a handshake, a certificate of admission printed on golden paper, and a sticker that read, “I won the lottery!” Their smiles were broadcast on four Jumbotron screens hanging above the stage set up in the middle of the Fort Washington Armory, where the event was held. (See a slideshow of pictures from the event.)

An hour after the first name was called, only a handful of stragglers remained to find out where on the long waiting lists they had landed. One mom, Ana Rodriguez, stood next to her glum daughter, whose heart had been set on the schools since she saw pictures of Harlem Success Academy students dressed as doctors for Halloween. Another, Sherene Davis, told me she would find a way to send her daughter to private school. “I vowed never to send another child to District 5 schools,” Davis said, explaining that her 21-year-old son floundered in them.

The event took an unusual format for a charter school lottery, revealing publicly for the first time names that had been selected by computer earlier in the week. At some other charter schools’ public lotteries, names are literally pulled from a bucket before parents’ eyes. Other schools conduct their lotteries in private, contacting families afterwards to let them know if they won a spot.

A Harlem Success spokeswoman, Jenny Sedlis, told me the actual selection had to happen ahead of time because of the sheer number of names and the complicated system of preferences for siblings, children from each school’s district, and families zoned for a handful of low-performing schools that the city Department of Education wanted to shut down this year. An official from the State Education Department, which supervises one of the Harlem Success schools, observed the selection process, Sedlis said.

Still, Moskowitz said having a public event was important because of Harlem Success’s dual mission, both to educate students and to draw media attention to the fact that many more families are seeking admission to charter schools than can be accommodated in them. During his remarks, Klein echoed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s call for a lifting of caps on the number of charter schools allowed in each state. And Smith, who has been a key supporter of charter schools in position as State Senate majority leader, proclaimed, “Charter schools are the way of the future.”

None of the parents I spoke to described their school search in political terms. “I just want the best for my son, so I applied for every charter school in Manhattan,” one mom, Bernadette Zayas, told me. Admiring HSA’s formal uniforms, a father, Jake Langley said, “They don’t have to get into clothes and all of that competing stuff.”  

Jean and Terryl Moreland were two of the last parents to leave the cavernous room. Their daughter was far down on the waitlist for all four schools and as they filed out of the armory they discussed the next step in their kindergarten hunt, learning next week whether their daughter qualified for a spot gifted and talented program. “I wonder how single parents and busy parents can keep up,” Terryl said to me.