18 Days Left in Open Enrollment: Choosing a School

As I talk with parents who are entering Seattle Public Schools for the first time in the fall, it seems like the confusion around the enrollment process and options is even larger than the typical yearly confusion. The closure and consolidation process, combined with the upcoming changes to the assignment plan, and the proposed changes to start times has created quite a complex collection of data and options.

Here are some of the things I find myself regularly explaining to incoming parents.

Enrollment Process
You should put down the schools you want in the exact order you really want them on the enrollment form. Putting popular/hard-to-get-into schools at the top of your list does nothing to harm your chances of getting into a neighborhood school in your cluster lower down on the list. I promise. I've had this confimed by Tracy Libros several times. Also, there is also no limit to how many schools you can put on the list.

Here's an excerpt from an old post I made on this subject:

Regarding the question about the chances of getting into Salmon Bay (or any school), the probability varies every year. But, it is important to remember it doesn't matter what the chances are. Why? Well, it's convoluted and difficult to understand the enrollment system, but if you just list all the schools you would like your child to attend in your true order of preference, it works out.

You are not penalized in any way by listing many schools. And, if you don't get into your top choices, you still have just as good a chance of getting into the other schools on your list. For example, if you really want Salmon Bay first and Adams second and Loyal Heights third, then list them that way. If your child doesn't get into Salmon Bay, then you have the same priority for Adams as if you put that one first. If your child doesn't get into Adams, then you have the same priority for Loyal Heights as if you had put that one first, and so on.

Pages 34-40 in the Elementary Enrollment guide are very useful for answering questions about the enrollment process. In particular, pages 36-37 detail the tiebreakers that determine who gets spots in which schools. You can see that distance is a major determining factor for most schools, but not for alternative schools which tend to pull evenly from among a group of several clusters.

Chances of Getting Into a Particular School
The number of kids who apply to and get into different schools obviously varies by year, but there are consistent trends. Take a look at this historical data on the SPS website. It makes very interesting reading.

Looking at 1st choice data (page 4) for example, you can tell that Madrona is on a downward slide in terms of popularity. Of course, you can’t tell why, but it’s still interesting. You can also see how Beacon Hill popularity skyrocketed last year with the roll-out of the language immersion programs.

Page 6 (waiting list) shows the enormous size of TOPS, Salmon Bay, and John Stanford International waiting lists, as well as the fact that the majority of elementary schools never have any wait list.

It looks like Beacon Hill, after only having a waitlist of 1 person in 2004 and no other waitlist through 2007, had a waiting list of 48 kids in 2008. That’s huge! With the addition of the language immersion program, in one year they have gone from being a school that is easy to get into to being a school that is difficult to get into.

Closures & Consolidation
The district is now done with elementary school closures for the foreseeable future. Really. I know the last several years of closures have undermined families' confidence about stability and predictability in the Seattle Public School district. But if you find a school that works for your child for the upcoming year, you can feel confident that it will remain open throughout your child's time in elementary school.

New Assignment Plan
On the flip side, the school you get into for the upcoming year may not be one that you are able to stay at for the entire time your child is in elementary school. A new student assignment plan is being designed now and will be put into place for the 2010-2011 school year that drives to keep more families in schools closer to their homes. Details (such as they are) are on this page on the district site.

It could be that the revised assignment plan allows current students to stay at their schools and the changes only affect future students. If so, it is likely that changes in transportation will mean that some families that get transportation to schools for 2009-2010 may lose that transportation for the following years. But it is also possible that the revised assignment plan will send some children back to schools closer to home. I don't have any insight into the decisions or the details around this. I'm just reading between the lines.

For those families that are considering waiting a year and doing private school in a Kindergarten, I wouldn't recommend it. You will almost definitely find yourself with fewer options of schools to enroll your child in the following year (2010-2011) when the new assignment plan is implemented.

Start Time Changes
The proposed changes to start times have all K-8s, middle schools, and high schools starting at 8:00 am, and all K-5s starting at 9:15 am. I think it's a terrible idea and I think the district will end up saving very little money from this effort (as Charlie and Johnny and other people's data analysis shows).

The district has promised a final decision before the end of Open Enrollment period, so we should know for sure about this in the next couple of weeks. Read the district FAQ for the details and spin.

Choosing the "Best" School
There are popular schools and less popular schools. But there is no one school that is "best" for all children. Make sure you go on tours and ask the questions that matter to you and your child.

Here are some blog posts written over the last couple of years that may be helpful:
In terms of data on schools, two of the best sources I've found are:

1) The Seattle Times Enrollment Guide which has data and articles on choosing a school.

2) The district's Research, Evaluaton and Assessment page. Because I'm not very interested in standardized test scores, what I look at are the Student Climate Survey and the Staff Survey. It's fascinating what you can learn from reading them.


Great job, Beth. I hope that people forward your thread to others.

A few thoughts:

-DON'T just put down one or two choices. While Beth explained HOW to place your choices, she didn't say you NEED to make at least 3+ choices. Why? Simply because if, for any reason, you don't get your first or second choice (and that's all you listed), your application goes into a little holding pattern. The computer will then continue to assign those who DID put down 3,4,5th choices. You get what is left. Don't let the district make a decision for you (even if your 3,4, 5th choices aren't great, they are still YOUR choices).

-Closure. I wish I had your faith, Beth. What I think may happen is that they might close fewer schools (like 2 or 3) but I think it may continue within the next 2-3 years. It may happen because of the condition of a building (that they want to get off their maintenance list) and/or a school that they feel is failing.

-Assignment plan. I don't see them changing assignments that have already been made. I absolutely agree that the new assignment plan may take away transportation from some families (so choose carefully) but I doubt if they would say, "Here's the new plan and everyone has to reenroll." They couldn't handle that if they had the computer system at NASA. I think for those already enrolled at a school this enrollment period (2009) there are two things that may happen when the new assignment plan hits. One, you may lose transportation. Two, you may not get the sibling preference. They are probably not going to want to grandfather in a lot of kids (or maybe they figure if there is no transportation, parents might not enroll the second child at the same school). But the object is to save money and by cutting transportation AND not having the sibling preference, it will drive more people closer to home.
zb said…
To verify -- there really is no limit to the number of schools you can list? That's an important piece of information, and one that should be used, because if there is a limit to the number of listed schools, it no longer becomes true that the right thing to do is to list your favored schools in order, with as long a list as you want (if for example, your top 10 schools are all ones you are unlikely to get into).

Second, a few additions to Beth's comments that I've gleaned from conversations. Of course, I'm a random anonymous person on the internet, so anything I say should be independently verified.

1) Think about your waitlist school. Some of the weird results I've seen have resulted from people not listing a waitlist school that's different from their first choice. Although there is no harm to listing all your schools in your order of preference, since you pick only one waitlist school, picking a waitlist school for which you have a poor chance of getting in (JSIS, for example, when you don't live near JSIS, which might be your first choice) does mean that you loose out your chance to be on a waitlist at a preferred school for which you have a better chance of getting in. Your waitlist school defaults to your first choice unless you specifically designate another school.

2)Waitlists are a complicated (in my opinion), so if you find yourself on a waitlist, get more information about how it works.

3) Beth writes "But there is no one school that is "best" for all children." I'd go further -- there's no *one* school that's "best" for your own child. There are probably a variety of options in which your child will thrive and succeed, focusing on the "best" is a burden too great for a parent to bear (though, with the caveat that for children with significant needs outside of the mainstream (you share a special burden), this piece of advice might not be true). But, for many of us, our children really will thrive in many many environments.

If you're not good at logic puzzles, have someone look over your choices for you (though, again, this doesn't apply to everyone). It really can feel like a puzzle at times. For example, I have a school which is quite popular (has a waitlist), but we live close to it and are likely o get in. If I preferred JSIS, I could put it first, and also put it as a waitlist school, because I am very likely to get into my 2nd choice (though rather unlikely to get into JSIS), and thus, can use my one waitlist spot for JSIS. If, on the other hand, I lived further away from my 2nd choice school, I believe I'd have to put it a my waitlist school, because I might be likely to be high on the waitlist for that school (or at least much higher than JSIS). And, of course, your mileage may vary. I just feel concerned about people who don't have someone to discuss these issues with.
Yes, it is true, that you can list as many schools as you like. You can list 10 on the form and you can attach an appendix with as many more as you like.

If you live in the NE cluster, you definitely need to list at least 5 choices. For NE elementary, you have 8 traditional and 3 alternative options with transportation. If you don't list enough of your choice schools, it is very possible to get an assignment to Jane Addams or Olympic Hills as John Rogers will likely be full from first and second choice families.
Central Mom said…
I'd like to second Melissa's comment: There's no guarantee that additional school buildings won't close in coming years. Personally, I'm betting some more will. Obvious choices are those that were on the list, then back off in this last round of closures. So add that into the mix of "what if" when choosing.
Beth Bakeman said…
I've heard uneqivocal statements from several School Board members and district staffers that we are "done with elementary school closures." This is based on the demographic and capacity data analysis.

Of course, something strange could happen with demographics that would change this, but I think it's very unlikely. A big part of the reason that the Board was determined to close as many elementary school buildings as they did this time was so they could be done and not have to revisit the issue again in the next couple of years.

That means to me that middle school and high school closure discussions are next.

And with the assignment plan craziness, I think lots of things can cause concern/instability for families, but I really don't think further elementary closures is one of them.
ZB, order does matter. Beth said that and I agree. What she said is there is no limit to the number of schools you can list and I followed up and said you should choose more than 3 just in case. And yes, you are correct. You do have to choose which school to be waitlisted for or else they will assume it is your first choice.

I'm not sure I understand why you think if you can make many choices that the order no longer matters.
dj said…
Not to keep beating the same drum (except to do exactly that), but few things drive me batter than the fact that parents have clearly expressed a preference for programs like TOPS, and the district at least as far as I can tell is not attempting to replicate such a program at another site.
Unknown said…
This is a good place to mention this, I think. I asked a while ago about losing your current spot if you tried for a different school.

I spoke to Tracy Libros after getting conflicting answers here and the totally wrong answer from the enrollment center.

If you put only those programs you prefer on the form- (leave off the current program!) you will default back to the current assignment if you don't get one of your preferred options.
Maureen said…
Has anyone asked if you can withdraw and resubmit your enrollment form? Say you were sure you wanted a particular K-8 so you handed in the form on March 1st. Now that school may start at 8:00 and your family couldn't handle that. Can you get your application back and resubmit it on March 30th with (perhaps) different choices?
anonymous said…
Maureen, good question. The answer is yes! I changed mine, after going to the Jane Addams tour. I apologized to the woman at the enrollment center for the confusion, and she said oh that's nothing, we have people come in and change their enrollment forms 5 or 6 times!

So, yes feel free to make as many changes as necessary. Just do it before the end of open enrollment. And check online after March 16 to make sure your choices are recorded correctly. Amazingly, they are entered by hand, so some room for human error.
jp70 said…
I'm currently confused about how to apply for spectrum if you have a child at a school that offers spectrum, but you don't want them to transfer schools for spectrum (if they don't get in spectrum at their school, have them remain at their current school). I've tried to figure it out on the website (what forms to fill out and how to fill out) and I'm confused. I want to make sure I don't do anything incorrect that messes it up (after reading about a family who was transferred to a different school for spectrum when that was not what they wanted). Any help would be appreciated! Thanks.
hschinske said…
Spectrum is listed as if it were a different school. So if your child is at Smith Elementary, and you want them in the Spectrum program there, and your second choice is the Smith Elementary regular program, you list them just like that:
1) Smith Elementary Spectrum
2) Smith Elementary
3) (whatever other choice(s) you want)

Helen Schinske
Sahila said…
AS#1 is fighting the 8am start for K-8s and we are working on alternative transportation options so that our current students and new families outside the N and NE clusters can still have access to the school... we are also considering asking the District to grandfather in our current all city draw students for busing, in line with the diversity

We also will be having before and after school care provided by the Boys & Girls Club, on site, from 7am to 6.30pm starting at the beginning of the coming school year...

And, word has it, four Summit teachers will transfer into AS#1 this coming year ... I heard second-hand today (from a Summit parent) that one of those people is a highly regarded middle-school teacher who was responsible for creating Summit's link with the Pacific Northwest Ballet....

And, for those interested in a little light reading and acquiring some background information that might help explain some of the things going on in the District, I recommend you look at this 2006 report:

Charlie Mas said…
All of the current Board members and all of the current "C" level staff could swear on a stack of Bibles and their children's lives that there will be no more elementary school closures for the next five years and I would not believe it for a moment.

First, it is very likely that none of them will be in their current positions before the five years have passed. They won't be the decision-makers.

Second, the District has promised a set of closure criteria. In the unlikely case that they actually draft and implement that closure criteria we have no way of knowing if a school will hit the benchmarks that trigger closure.

Third, aren't they already threatening AS#1 with closure if the school doesn't meet some set of benchmarks?

Fourth, they are supposed to turn their capacity management attention to high schools next, aren't they? Couldn't that result in some programs relocating and consolidating?

Fifth, couldn't we see the District combine a couple of West Seattle-South elementaries at the old Denny building?

And, of course, Six, they promised it, and they break the great majority of their promises.
Elizabeth W said…
Melissa said to zb on 3/13/09 at 10:29

I'm not sure I understand why you think if you can make many choices that the order no longer matters.

I believe the point is that if the length of your ranked list were limited then you would have to use strategy to choose which schools to put on your ranked list.

Consider a family who:
* lives in West Seattle,
* prefers schools near the UW, and
* likes only one school in their cluster

Suppose they were limited to only five choices and listed their true top five, all of which are highly popular schools North of the Ship Canal. They wouldn't get any of their top five schools because those will fill up with people with higher priority. They probably wouldn't get their one preferred in-cluster school either since they'll be assigned wherever in their cluster it's convenient for the district to place them.

Happily, we are not limited in the number of schools we rank. Such a family can turn in their list with several unlikely candidates followed by their one in-cluster
choice. (Though, of course, they really should also rank other schools in their cluster.)

Advice on ranking schools is generally given as:
(1) list schools in your true order of preference, and
(2) list more than a couple schools

Number (1) is dead on. The algorithm used has been specifically crafted to make it unnecessary to use strategy when ranking schools. You absolutely should list schools in your priority order.

Number (2) is better worded thus: make your ranked list deep enough to include schools you have a very good chance of getting in to.

Someone who lives across the street from John Rodgers, wants to go to John Rodgers, and is enrolling on time for Kindergarten only needs to list John Rodgers -- the probability that the school fills up with people with higher priority is almost nil.

A family living on the West boundary of the Bryant reference area probably needs a deep list if all their top choices are high-popularity schools.
Beth Bakeman said…
OK, OK, Charlie, you've convinced me. In my Charlie Brownish-way, I continue to believe what people tell me is true. But you're probably right.
zb said…
"I'm not sure I understand why you think if you can make many choices that the order no longer matters."

Sorry, I did not mean to say that. Clearly the order in which you list schools matters.

What I meant to say is irrelevant anyway, since you can list as many schools as you want.

(for clarity, I'll try to say that what I was *trying* to say, was that if there was a limit of 10 schools, it's no longer true that you should just list your 10 favorite schools, since you may not have a realistic option at any of them. But, if you can list all the schools in the system, then, you can list the schools in the order you prefer, and you have no need to assess your chances of getting into your preferred school, before listing it in your preferred order. Sorry for the confusion).
zb said…
Oops, I posted again, without noting that Elizabeth had stated what I'd tried to say much more clearly.

But, remember to give some thought to your waitlist school, even while you rank your schools in their preferred order.
rugles said…
I would add rule #3 to Elizabeths list...

3. Pick your wait list school carefully.

As zb has said, from your list of candidates, look for schools that historically have reasonable wait lists.

It's not a wasted pick to put TOPS as a first choice, but it may be to put it down as your wait list school.

You can change wait lists later, but you go to the end of the line.
About the waitlists. They used to keep them until the end of October (way back when) and now it is a shorter and shorter period. (I think it's Oct. 1 now, anyone?) However, keep in mind that many parents give up after school starts so keep calling every single day on the waitlist. Many people just don't want to move their kids after school starts and that waitlist (depending on the school) can move. There isn't a lot of hope there for a really popular school but it can't hurt to ask.
Megan Mc said…
October 31st is another important date. It is the last day to switch schools without a formal appeal for transfer. If the school you chose or are assigned to doesn't work out, you have until October 31st to request a change to a school with room.

It took us until October to realize that our 1st choice school was the wrong choice for our kids and were lucky that we happened to contact the district on the 29th to ask about moving. This was three years ago so the date may have changed to match the new date for the wait list.
Josh Hayes said…
Charlie is right about AS1, as far as I know. It's all rather confusing (as what isn't in SPS? I think it's practically a requirement), but the "restructuring" which was, supposedly, prompted by our hey presto Title I status and associated vulnerability to NCLB has now vanished. Not because anything has really changed in our projected SES makeup, but because the formula for determining who qualifies for Title I has changed.

Hey presto again! You're not poor any more! Hallelujah!

With the replacement of our current principal with the current Summit principal, and the planned importing of four certified staff, and the district's apparent expectation that our enrollment next year will be pushing 300 (!), I can say with some certainty that we're living in interesting times. This could be a terrific time to get your kids slotted into a dynamic, evolving, experiential-based school. I admit, I don't know what will happen, but I'm looking forward to having some support from SPS for a change - something AS1 hasn't had for, oh, about 30 years.
Tosca said…
I just looked at the agenda for the next board meeting. Transportation is on the agenda - am I right in that they have shifted the proposed bell times again to 8:15 and 9:30?
Beth, thanks for all the info.

I was looking at the Historical Enrollment Information. I am confused about the data in the Assignments spreadsheet. It shows Lafayette with 90 Kindergartners, which makes 3 classes of 30 each, that makes sense. I know they were maxed out and the wait list didn't move last year.

On the other hand, Cooper only shows 27 Kindergartners, yet they have 2 classes maxed out at 27 or 28 kids each. Arbor Heights only shows 44 K students, but there was at least 1 from their reference area assigned to Cooper that couldn't get into Arbor Heights. Were there more students there or were there classes capped at 22 students? Finally, I looked at your Beacon Hill example, and the assigned students went from 55 in 2007 down to 43 in 2008. Clearly there's something that needs to be explained about this data, or it is wrong.

Overall, it shows a huge bump in Kindergarten enrollment last year, Especially in West Seattle. There may have been an uptick on Beacon Hill as well.

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