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Everyone’s a winner in one charter network’s admissions lottery

Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the lottery event at Democracy Prep
Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the lottery event at Democracy Prep

What do you call a lottery when everyone wins?

An “Oprah moment,” according to operators of the Democracy Prep charter school network. They handed out 550 school seats like they were cars in one fell swoop Thursday night during the network’s annual admissions lottery.

Hundreds of students and their families packed into the basement gym of Democracy Prep High School, eager to find out whether they had won a spot at the middle and elementary schools to which they had applied. They knew that many people who apply to charter schools aren’t selected to attend — an experience that some of them had even had before — but they were hoping to get lucky.

The tension didn’t last long. As the room filled up, Democracy Prep Superintendent Seth Andrew announced that there would be no lottery: Every student who lived in District 4 and District 5 would be admitted.

“You get a seat and you get a seat and you get a seat!” Andrew said, pointing to applauding audience members while offering his best Oprah impression.

“That’s awesome,” said Harold Lilly, whose fifth grade daughter attended a private parochial school. He said when he first came in and saw the hundreds of people vying for spots, he doubted he’d win. “But this is a blessing.”

The surprising turn of events was unusual for charter school lotteries, where the emphasis is often on the large number of applicants and small number of seats. Some charter school networks, including the Success Charter Network, have even done away with public lotteries, citing the huge numbers of disappointed families that would attend them.

The four schools in the Democracy Prep network did receive thousands of applications — 5,500 in total, according to the network. But when administrators crunched the numbers, they realized that everyone who applied from the districts where the schools are located would secure a seat because of the state law that requires charters schools to select in-district applicants first.

There were more in-district applicants than there are seats in the four schools, but Andrew said the network is expecting its “yield” — the portion of admitted students who actually attend — to drop this year. In the past, about three quarters of admitted students enrolled, but as more high-quality middle schools have opened in the area, that figure has fallen and is likely to be about 60 percent this year, he said.

Some charter operators might be distressed when fewer families opted to keep the seats they won in lotteries. But Andrew said the shift reflected good news for the neighborhood, and provided evidence to counteract a report released earlier this week that painted a grim picture for education in Harlem. The report said there were zero “high-performing” public schools in District 5 and only a few in District 4, but its data were years old and didn’t include charter schools, which Andrew said was an oversight.

Harlem, Andrew said, is now home to “many of the best middle schools in the city.” He attributed the saturation of charter schools in Harlem – half of the 1,700 District 5 sixth-grade students will attend charters next year — to being an ideal school choice scenario for families.

Charter schools have touted both their in-district and out-of-district wait lists as evidence of demand for their schools. Earlier this month the Success Charter School Network announced that more than 12,000 students applied for 1,200 open seats. Andrew said that Democracy Prep’s waiting list of students living outside of Harlem numbered in the thousands.

Most parents at the Democracy Prep lottery event that we spoke to said they wanted their child to attend the school. Davida McNeil is homeschooling her fifth grade son this year, but she said it had become too much of a financial burden and wanted him to return to the public school system.

“I figured charter schools are the best option there is,” said McNeil, who said she had applied to a Harlem Success Academy school when her son was a kindergartner, but didn’t get in.

Joe Garrett said that when his special needs daughter won a spot in the lottery of another Harlem charter school, he was “given a hard time about it” and told that they could not provide services for her. He said he was hoping that Democracy Prep would be more welcoming.

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