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Harlem Success Academies lottery low-key, but high-tech

Yesterday evening, in a tiny room on the second floor of a Harlem school building, staff of the Success Charter Network of charter schools admitted 1,100 students for next year — in just over an hour.

Charter school lotteries have a reputation for being emotional public spectacles. Last year, thousands of Harlem Success Academy hopefuls filled the Fort Washington Armory for what was part enrollment event and part political rally led by the network’s controversial director Eva Moskowitz.

But many charter school admissions decisions are actually computer-generated, made in private days or even weeks before names of admitted students are announced at public events in front of anxiety-ridden parents. And this year, Moskowitz’s network, which currently runs four schools and is set to open three more in Harlem and the Bronx this fall, has quietly scrapped its boisterous public event. Instead, parents will be notified of the lottery’s results by mail, online and through a phone hot-line next week.

Success Charter Network spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis said the public event was abandoned because the sheer number of applicants — nearly 7,000 for 7 schools this year — would overwhelm organizers and because of tighter school budgets this year. Leaders of the network may also be feeling camera-shy this year after a winter of intense public scrutiny of charter schools and accusations that Moskowitz’s schools benefit from favoritism from Chancellor Joel Klein.

Yesterday, Matt Zacks, a software programmer from the educational data software company InResonance, peered at a large computer monitor filled with tables and lists of names. A smattering of Harlem Success staff, parents and visitors munched pizza and watched over Zacks’ shoulder as he moused and clicked through the lists.

“Here are the 6,095 applicants,” Zacks said, excluding the nearly 900 who applied after the April 5 deadline and who will be added to the end of the wait list. “And now we are going to check a button to make the names anonymous.” With a click, each applicant’s name was replaced with a randomly-assigned number. Then the list was reshuffled into numerical order.

Next, with a few keystrokes, Zacks launched the lottery for Harlem Success Academy 1’s kindergarten class. Though charters are legally required to select students through random lottery when applications exceed open spots, they must also give preference in the lottery to certain groups of students. This means the computerized selection program must make several sweeps through the list of students, picking out first students who fall into several preferred categories.

The first pass pulled out and listed all applicants with a sibling already enrolled in the school. A small counter box displaying the number of remaining seats in the class clicked down. The next pass-through picked the students who live in the school’s district and who are also “at-risk,” which the school defines as English language learners and students zoned for schools the state has designated as failing. Next up, at-risk students who live outside the district, and the next sweep ranked the remaining in-district students. Then finally, all the students passed over in previous rounds got their rankings.

With one more button click, the list of admitted students and a long wait list appeared on the screen and was saved and printed. The whole process took minutes for each grade.

The days of pulling names out of a box or a raffle drum are long gone for many city charter schools. Some high-profile charters attract thousands of applicants, and the task of sorting the applications by a school’s admissions preference criteria and pulling each name out one by one can be unwieldy and error-prone. Harlem Success pulled names the old-fashioned way in its first year, Moskowitz said. “You’d make more mistakes, paging through scraps of paper,” she said. “Pieces of paper would stick together.”

So in its second year, Moskowitz hired InResonance, a company that specializes in admissions and enrollment software, to custom build an lottery program for the Success Charter schools. InResonance works primarily with private schools, but in addition to Harlem Success, it also works with the Ross Global Academy Charter School in New York City. The Success charter schools’ program, with its anonymity and layers of preferences, is one of the most complicated pieces of admissions software InResonance has customized, Zacks said.

“This is pretty unique,” he said. Most schools are able to use their programs without him coming for an on-site visit. “This is the only time I do this, ever,” he said.

In a corner, Ny Whitaker and Phillip Nelson, both parents of second graders at two different HSA schools, traded anecdotes from their own experiences with the lottery. Now the heads of the parent groups at their respective schools, the two watched the process as proxies for the thousands of families who applied for a spot at the school.

“So many people have questions about the way it works, it’s good to be able to say, ‘I’ve seen it,'” Whitaker said. The lower-key admissions event might be easier on parents and students not accepted, she said.

“I think people are looking more for transparency,” Nelson added.

At 7:09 p.m., the computer generated its last lists of newly-admitted students for the new Bronx Success Academy 2. “That’s it,” said Holly Saso, the network’s assistant director of enrollment. “We just admitted 1,100 students,” she said to a teacher who passed by and poked her head in the door.

Sabrena Silver, an attorney who was recruited to be the lottery’s official outside observer by an acquaintance affiliated with the network, pored over the results with Zacks and Saso. The three matched the numbers of admitted students to the schools’ stated numbers of open seats. Then she signed the form.

“There you go,” said Saso. “Your magic signature makes it all official.”