School lotteries will become a bit more open

Drawings moved to district office and will have parent, board witnesses

Is a school lottery by any other name just as selective?

Well, yes, but it seems less like a zero-sum game, according to Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who is spearheading a campaign to use the term "random selection" instead.

"They are not lotteries. Lotteries imply winners and losers. The term is 'random selection for district-wide programs,'" he said.

And the "random selections" for coveted spots in the district's limited- enrollment programs will be more public than before, he said.

"I want to be as transparent as possible," he said in an e-mail this week.

The lotteries will be held at the district's main office on Thursday morning, rather than at separate school sites, as has been done in previous years, he said.

School board members and parents will act as witnesses, he said. He agreed to allow a Palo Alto Weekly reporter to attend as well.

But the group lottery won't be open to the public because that would make the room too crowded and chaotic, he said.

He hopes parents and others will be convinced of the lotteries' neutrality in the new setting, he said.

Whether referred to as lotteries or random selection, the goal is the same -- to determine which students net a spot in four unique programs. Hoover Elementary School offers a traditional academic focus while Ohlone Elementary School has a Montessori-like approach where students call teachers by first names. The upcoming Mandarin-immersion program at Ohlone will be taught mainly in Mandarin, while the Spanish-immersion program at Escondido Elementary School is taught mainly in Spanish.

The Mandarin program was a bone of contention among Palo Alto parents last year.

Detractors claimed it was unfair to offer entry to only a small portion of students, among other flaws.

And parents have earlier complained about the lotteries' closed-door policy, even speculating foul play or favoritism on the Weekly's Town Square Forum.

She has heard plenty of accusations -- but the lotteries are straightforward and fair, Ohlone Principal Susan Charles said.

"If someone didn't get in it would just be because their name didn't get picked out of a box. People can't believe the process is that simple," she said.

Students' names are placed in a box, then selected randomly until equal numbers of boys and girls have been accepted, she said.

The same process has been in place at Escondido, where families are assigned numbers drawn out of a hat, Principal Gary Prehn said.

On Thursday, when school representatives will gather in the district office for the drawing, students will be assigned numbers, Skelly said.

Ohlone's application requires the extra step that parents write an essay describing why they like the school's philosophy. That gives them an opportunity to be sure they agree with it, Charles said.

"It's my way of making them commit to the process," she said. No student chosen in the lottery has ever been later rejected due to an unconvincing essay, she said.

Competition for a spot at the limited-enrollment programs is a given.

The new Mandarin-immersion program can accept forty students this year. About 100 applications had been collected by the end of last week, Charles said.

The Spanish-immersion program has room for 40 students too, but siblings get priority -- as they will in future years at the Mandarin program -- Prehn said.

Last year 36 siblings applied to the Spanish program, leaving only four spots for other applicants, he said. But such a competitive year is unusual, he said.

Ideally, there would be room for everyone, Charles said.

"My dream would be a bigger Ohlone. I always tell people if I were queen of the world, I would accept everyone," she said.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 10:17 am

So, now we know.

Personally I do not like the phrase "random selection" as it implies that there has been pre-screening of those selected. I would much prefer the phrase "random non-selection" to imply complete luck in the draw.

Posted by yeah, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 20, 2008 at 10:52 am

>"They are not lotteries. Lotteries imply winners and losers.
>The term is 'random selection for district-wide programs,'"

Nice try but there are still winners and losers.

Though kudos for making this all transparent. Always surprised it wasn't in the first place.

Posted by Observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 10:53 am

Question for Charles - does she filter out who goes in the hat based on those essays? Or does every applicant still go in the hat?

I'd like to see confirmation that all 40 spots in MI are being chosen by random selection.

And how many spots available this year for Spanish immersion?

I'd also like to know how many applicants they have in each pool for the language immersion programs.

In other words, these are supposed to be 33% target language/67% english language. That means of the 40 spots, about 14 should be pulled from a 'target language' hat and about 36 should be pulled from an "Other" language hat. How many in each 'hat'?

I also want to know how they select the Tinsley kids for these programs - are there any applicants and if so I assume that's a separate hat because some spots have apparent been reserved for them?) And the special needs kids? Are there any applying? Are they lumped in to the same hats?

And for MI - all this is also done separately by grade as well. They are populating 20 spots for kinders and 20 spots for first graders - so this needs to be done via separate applicant pools.

They need to publish more specifics on how this will all be done.

And reporter(s) - we're looking to you now for details of how this all plays out. You are the eyes of the public here. We're counting on you.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 10:58 am

A couple more questions too.

If an MI 1st grade spot gets chosen by an Ohlone student, how is that spot filled in regular Ohlone? The same question in the case of if it gets filled by a Hoover student?

What happens if an MI spot gets filled by a younger sibling? Does an older elementary age sibling get priority on the Ohlone wait list?

What happens if there are siblings in the 1st/k lottery, if one gets picked, do they both get picked?

Posted by yet another parent, a resident of Escondido School
on Feb 20, 2008 at 11:05 am

Arden, do you know what the process is for students' names to go INTO the box? Is there any prior filtering? Do ALL applications go into the box? If so, how is the Ohlone essay used, if at all?

From your article, it still sounds a little vague. Will it continue to be names (numbers, actually) in a box, the way Susan Charles described she used to do it? What happens after a number is drawn? Do the witnesses learn who the winners are? (Apologies to Dr. Skelly who may call it what he wants, but a child who gets picked 'wins'.) How are the winners notified? I'm trying to get a sense of how transparent the entire process is, from application to notification.

Congratulations to Supt. Skelly for a step in the right direction.

Posted by Arden Pennell, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Feb 20, 2008 at 11:24 am

Arden Pennell is a registered user.


I'll try to respond to the questions whose answers I know. I'll attend the lottery tomorrow morning, too.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said students will be assigned numbers.

For privacy reasons, I don't think the numbers will be read out loud, but rather handed to a secretary who will record them and keep track of how many more students are needed, be they boys, girls, Spanish speakers, etc.

If a student is chosen, a school employee calls her/his parents. At Ohlone, parents have a week to decide, Susan Charles said.

There will be an update on the process tomorrow after the lottery.
Thanks for the comments. Arden

Posted by PA Dad, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 20, 2008 at 11:32 am

Yes, Arden -- please ask who decides what goes into the box--especially at Ohlone. I've heard Susan Charles specifically state that she HAS withdrawn names from the lottery based on comments in a parent's essay. So has she changed her tune or is she being disingenuous here?

Here's another question -- who are the parent witnesses? Are they people who have expressed doubts about lottery transparency or are they district 'insiders'? If the later, that's hardly going to allay charges of these selections being fixed. So who are they?

Also, while a room full of either elated or bitterly disappointed parents sounds like a recipe for a circus, what's to stop the event being videoed and that video being posted to u-tube. Will that happen?

Lastly, I agree with 'yet another parent' -- there's a big difference between witnesses seeing numbers pulled out of a hat and names being announced in a public forum. I don't see why the names need to remain private. I think anyone attending the draw should be able to write down all the names drawn and compare that with the list of children in the final program.

Of course some people will turn down a place once offered. So that those places are re-offered fairly, there needs to be a public drawing of a back up list -- and that list should be made public, too.

Bottom line -- there should be no students in any of these programs come next fall, other than siblings, whose names weren't either drawn as 'winners' or as alternates. Make that list public and THEN you'd effectively extinguish the current mistrust.

Of course that wouldn't mean the end our appalling practice of offering an enhanced curriculum to only a few lucky winners (sorry, that's what they are) as we do with SI and MI. That stain will remain, however transparently we pick winners and losers here, until we have FLES in all our elementary schools.

Posted by yet another parent, a resident of Escondido School
on Feb 20, 2008 at 11:37 am

Thank you, Arden. I have a few more questions:
Will a waitlist be drawn at this time, too? Will parents know what number they are on the waitlist? Most recreation programs work this way. It helps parents make decisions and talk with their kids about where they may be going to school in the Fall.

How will attrition be handled? Through the waitlist, I'd hope. Does the waitlist carry over to the next school year? Is there a current waitlist for SI, Hoover and Ohlone? Will it be honored?
Why isn't Young Fives included in this it's-not-a-lottery process?
Will all grades be drawn on Thursday? The focus is on K, but surely there are applications and openings for upper grades of the non-MI programs. For example, if a 3rd grade spot is open at (enter your program of choice here), how will it get filled? What if it opens in the middle of next year?

If ALL names are drawn and assigned a number in the initial lottery, this would support Dr. Skelly's attempt to move away from 'winners' and 'losers'. All are 'winners' in the sense that they're drawn, but some get immediate admittance while others are on stand-by.

Has the district documented the process? It ought to be available on their website in plain view. An essential part of transparency is making the rules clear to all.

Posted by disappointed, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 20, 2008 at 12:38 pm

>Superintendent Kevin Skelly said students will be assigned numbers.
>For privacy reasons, I don't think the numbers will be read out loud,

Oh, so we're just going to see a random set of numbers drawn and not know who they belong to. So much for transparency.
Cries of privacy are a bit off since everyone's going to know who's in which school once the school year starts. I would have thought transparency would rule here. Apparently not.

Posted by Lottery Hopeful?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 12:50 pm

To ensure randomness the winning numbers should be called out loud and recorded. All numbers should be drawn to create a complete ordered waiting list of all applicants. And the entire list should be posted in the district office.

To complete the guarantee of transparancy and randomness the complete list of lottery applicants by name and number (the master list of name to number mapping) should be available in the office for viewing upon request. (not copying, not distributing, not taking out of the office, but viewing). This must be - or else there is no guarantee of randomness or transparency created here.

If I'm a random joe nobody who put my name down, and I know that some influential people have also put their name down - I'm asking myself how many variety of ways there could be that that other name is given priorty over mine. I can think of a ton of ways if the process is to pull a number, read it secretly to the secretary, then hand it over to district staff to make private notifications. No one knows whose numbers are being called. No one knows what the number list even is, or means. For all we know we could give a single person 15 numbers, and give the others one number each. Or the administration could review the number list, and switch out numbers before making the calls. Or a multitude of other things. If I don't trust the administration, how is this helping to create a transparent lottery?

Where are the checks and balances? This should be auditable.

This is not a step forward, this is an attempt to hold a secret lottery in a conference room (not open to the public), in a way that retains as much secrecy as humanly possible.

Skelly - if you knew nothing else about PAUSD when you took this job you knew we had a trust and respect issue. Do you think that's magically gone away?

Posted by transparency, please!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 1:08 pm

"To complete the guarantee of transparancy and randomness the complete list of lottery applicants by name and number (the master list of name to number mapping) should be available in the office for viewing upon request."
Agreed. Put the parent surname down as a minimum. If people want access to a boutique education not available to everyone who applies, losing a small bit of privacy should be part of the bargain.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 20, 2008 at 1:12 pm

I assume there are privacy laws which can't be violated by the district. For example, last names are not posted on class lists, parent info does not get into directories without a release, etc.

Posted by transparency, please!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 1:20 pm

Then ask the parents to sign a release. If they're not willing to use their own name, they should use a pseudonym. It's too late for this year, but make it a requirement for next year.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 1:55 pm

Then they should pay for an independent audit. The process of auditing the lottery (cross checking names/numbers, etc) shouldn't take more than 1-2 hours. That should be considered just part of the price of running these program fairly - so it should be counted and funded as part of being 'cost neutral'

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 20, 2008 at 2:23 pm

Thanks for the update, Arden.

What I wonder is how many names are going to be drawn for the Mandarin side of the program. The district okayed 1/3, but Charles is saying Stanford advised her to allocate half the positions to native speakers.

I mean even if everything aboveboad, we're talking more than one bag--there's the Mandarin/English split, the boy/girl split and the K/1 split. I see those 100 entries getting multiple ways before the draw even begins.

I don't think we can expect the roster at the beginning of the year to match the names pulled, by the way. There's a lot of changeover--people get into multiple programs, they go private, they move. There's a fair amount of movement on Ohlone's normal list. I've met parents whose kid got in the day before school started.

I don't know what they'll do with older siblings in the MI program simply because of the increasing fluency requirement. After first grade, they can't simply go down a waitlist--which they can do at Ohlone.

I am glad to see, by the way, that Skelly's paying attention and realizes that the lottery transparency is an issue.

Susan Charles, on the other hand, needs to be reminded that big schools are bad news for small kids.

Posted by Parent of Ohlone Alumni, a resident of Ohlone School
on Feb 20, 2008 at 2:39 pm

I was told they don't keep waitlists but run a new lottery when spots open up.

We didn't get in during Ohlone's first lottery. After Young Fives had their lottery, a few K spots opened up and we got in.

Will "random selection" be run the same day for Young Fives, Hoover, MI, SI & Ohlone?

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2008 at 2:47 pm

We have confirmation from the board that the program is to be 1/3 target language, 2/3 English. Only going up to 1/2 target language IF they don't have enough english speakers to fill the 2/3's. It doesn't matter what Charles thinks the stanford advisers are saying. The board set the policy

Another reason why we need transparent lottery and we need to know the number of applicants in each pool. Its simple. If there are more than 26 english speaker applicants than the number of mandarin speakers is limited to 14. If they don't have at least 14, then no program. (They've stated that 1/3 is the lower limit for this type of program)

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 20, 2008 at 7:59 pm


Interesting--so the politics of the program takes precedence over what would make the program work best according to the education experts.

So, basically the lottery (and I don't care what Skelly calls it, it's a lottery) has to have A) enough K and enough 1 applicants, while it simultaneously has enough English/Mandarin speaking applicants for each segment. Then the bottom priority will be a sex balance.

In other words, if there's a boy/girl imbalance in any of the segments, it's indicative of a lack of applicants.

So, the Tinsley applications are already in and approved then?

Posted by narnia, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2008 at 8:28 am

Requiring parental essays will leave out those whose parents can't write in english or can't write at all (as in the case of disabled parents) and those whose parents are not good communicators. In fact, it will leave out the poor and the non-native speakers (even if they are American citizens by birth in the case of any Puerto Ricans) as well as those whose parents or guardians do not have educational backgrounds that fit the "Ohlone model".

Lucky for the PAUSD , very few of those left out will have sufficient knowledge to ask the courts for enforcement of the law of the land. I hope somebody does.
It's time to throw out the essay and treat all applicants (the applicants are the students, not the parents) equally.

Posted by a mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2008 at 11:57 am

I did not see Young 5's on the Thursday lottery list. Why not?

Also, why is there a sibling preference to Young 5's, a program that doesn't have nearly enough space for the need, and which is a need-based program?

Posted by so what happened?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Did anybody go this? who were the board members present? How many board members were there? who pulled the names? Were they read aloud? who recorded the names?

Who were the witnesses present? did the witnesses have the opportunity to look real time at the number/name list and the numbers chosen?

Did they announce before the pull how many open spots they were filling via lottery for each program? And how many names were in the hat for each program? Did they sort the language immersion lotteries by categories and do these separately? (Kinder, first, boy, girl, mandarin speakers, english speakers,)

How many mandarin proficient applicants were in the MI lottery? how many mandarin speakers and english speakers were chosen for each grade? (Same for SI)

did they pick all names to create a full numbered order of alternates (ie: everyone in the lottery for each came away with a placement on the list) - a waiting list.

Did Ohlone lottery announce how many names were pulled out prior to lottery based on essay?

did they do the young fives program here too?

Was a video taken of this event? Where and when will it be posted?

Were ANY of the questions in the posts above answered today?

Posted by another mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2008 at 12:03 pm

I just called Young 5s, as they were supposed to have their lottery yesterday and call parents today. I was told that they had participated in the lottery this morning as well. Also, I had been told that they might be eliminating the sibling preference at Young 5's this year. Can anyone verify this?

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Awesome. One questino answered. Thanks! About 50 left to go.

Sibling preference at young fives? How would that work - unless you're talking about twins. (Twins I can understand - you can't exactly drive twins around to two separate schools every day.) But other than that - young fives is a pre-K type program. You're only in it for one year, right?

So the legitimate need for sibling preference at a regular elementary school is to keep more than one kid at a single school. to prevent commuting nightmares, to keep siblings in touch with each other during the day. How would a sibling preference be needed for a one year program? By the time second is ready, the first one would be moved on to a new school.

By the way, they don't give sibling preference for regular elementary schools unless the sibling is still at the school when the next one is starting. In other words, I don't preference at El Carmelo if the older kid is already attending JLS.

Besides, 'sibling preference' (other than for twins) implies an abuse of the young fives concept. The young fives program should only be used for kids who are not ready to enter mainstream kindergarten. There should not be an automatic assumption that because one kid needs it, the sibling needs it. The spaces for young fives should be based on need, not on want, not even on lottery for that matter!

Young fives is a resource PAUSD has that they can be using to address the achievement gap. Its about time they started looking at it this way, not as a funky little elite enrichment kindergarten for a few lottery winners.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Talking about twins, this is a good point. There seems to be more and more twins being born nowadays and I know of one family of triplets. This is probably due to infertility treatments. Therefore, it is a good idea to decide what to do in any lottery in the case of twins or other multiple births. For instance, if you have twins, should your name be put into the lottery once or twice?

Theoretically, if we are talking about only 4 or 5 spaces open for the general population, we could give all these spots to one family. Slightly difficult to rationale particularly in the light that multiple births are often preemies and behind their age group developmentally speaking.

Posted by cblasey, a resident of Stanford
on Feb 21, 2008 at 1:13 pm

Are they going to call people with the results of the lottery today?

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Young Fives is kind of strange--and, no, there's no reason there should be a sibling preference. But since it should be based on the kid's need, I question whether it should be a straight lottery. It should be for the kid's who need it.

It's very tightly linked to Preschool Family--and that's where I think there's a preference--most of those kids seem to get in. In other words, if you think your kid's going to need Young Fives, get into the preschool.

So, anyone gotten any calls on the lotteries yet?

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2008 at 2:05 pm


I know some parents that use the Precchool Family/Young Fives as a method to get their children delayed, so that they can excel in sports. I don't think this is a fair thing, but, apparently, some parents are good at gaming the system.

Posted by cblasey, a resident of Stanford
on Feb 21, 2008 at 2:25 pm

We just got called for the Spanish Immersion program.

Posted by Arden Pennell, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Feb 21, 2008 at 2:28 pm

Arden Pennell is a registered user.

Hi all,

We posted a story about this morning's lottery a couple hours ago: Web Link It is also on our home page now, 2:28 p.m. Thursday.

Posted by another mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2008 at 2:45 pm

I'm still wondering whether those of us who don't get in are going to get a call. Two kids from my son's preschool class heard between 1pm and 2pm that they got into Young 5s, but we have yet to hear anything (I'm assuming we didn't get in...) Has anyone received a call telling them they hadn't gotten into a program/were being wait listed?

Posted by cblasey, a resident of Stanford
on Feb 21, 2008 at 3:11 pm

another mom: i was previously told by PAUSD office that calls would be today and tomorrow. Good luck.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Do you get a call if you didn't get in? Don't give up if you don't get in on the first round--there are vacancies--particularly in the larger programs.


They delay their kids for *sports*? Yeesh. Nope, I think the Young Fives should have an essay, a screening and a recommendation from a preschool teacher or other early ed. professional.

I also know of a couple of cases where the kids went into Young Fives and it was a mistake--they were bored and could have hacked kindegarten.

Posted by appalled, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2008 at 12:22 am

As my own kids never attended it, I had no idea that Young 5's was "lottery based".

Seriously, I thought it was supposed to be for children born rather later in the year who might still be 4 years old when Kindergarten started and who might also not be truly emotionally and developmentally ready for Kindergarten even though they might technically make the "age-cut-off date" (much later than any other state's cut-off date, BTW.)

How sad that some people may choose it as a way to "swing the system" and track their kids into a lower grade than they might otherwise be for some perceived "unfair advantage", and then these kids might be too developmentally mature for younger-child-geared classroom teaching methods and for good socialization with their fellow classmates, and they may thus be bored and not get along well with their supposed "peers".

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