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.