ACPS mulls ditching enrollment lottery for focus programs

ACPS mulls ditching enrollment lottery for focus programs

By Melissa Quinn 

Alexandria City Public Schools staff contemplated ending the lottery system for focus programs during a board meeting April 11, but members expressed reservations about the change.

Families can apply for focus programs through either an administrative transfer, which requires approval from the district’s central office, or enter the lottery. Four elementary schools — Cora Kelly, Jefferson-Houston, John Adams and Lyles Crouch Traditional Academy — offer the intensive, subject-based programs.

If the school board eventually approves the change, administrative transfer would be the only option available for families hoping to enroll their children in focus programs. But several members, Christopher Lewis among them, raised concerns about ditching the lottery.

“I actually like the idea of a lottery,” Lewis said. “It seems a little more egalitarian.”

Lewis recalled hearing complaints from parents regarding the administrative transfer process, saying decisions are vague and sometimes discriminatory, though those claims have not been proven.

“When I see a shift from lottery to administrative transfers, it worries me,” Lewis said. “Especially when it’s a program that we want available to all students across the city on an equal opportunity, equal chance.”

Superintendent Morton Sherman said the lottery system originated because of limited space in focus programs. The system has become a de facto approach without a formal review, he said.

And since there is more space in the focus programs, the lottery system is unnecessary, said Margaret Walsh, executive director of student support services and policy development.

“The reason the lottery is no longer the format … as long as there is space, the student is going to be accepted,” she said.

Still, Lewis worried some students may not be given equal opportunity to attend focus programs — specifically the dual language program at John Adams — if administrative transfers were the only notion. Walsh disagreed with Lewis’ description of the demand.

“The practical reality is there has not been a need for it at John Adams. We would be thrilled to have that many people clamoring to get in,” Walsh said.

With an eye to the future, though, Lewis argued for preserving the system in case need for it arose again. If enrollment in the programs swelled, why not use an existing policy already in place, he asked.

“And since that’s the policy, let’s not change it. … Seems like common sense,” Lewis said.

Fellow school board member Stephanie Kapsis echoed Lewis’ sentiments. Doing away with the lottery would discourage parents from enrolling their children in a focus program, she said, as many don’t want to deal with the administrative transfer process.

“The perception of going through the administrative transfer process is much more intense and rigorous,” she said. “Whether or not that is true, that is the perception.”