So this morning I had a frank, productive and cordial talk with Gateway Public Schools Director Sharon Olken. I was again reminded how much I like Ms. Olken — I have in the past seen her as a “straight shooter” who tries every day to run a network of schools that are great for kids. I need to say first off that I apologized to her for casting aspersions against her character or questioning her integrity. I should not have done that and I was wrong to do that. I have been told in the past that sometimes I let my temper get in my own way and certainly being “livid” yesterday was part of that tendency.
Ms. Olken explained that the Gateway administration is saddened each year by families who *know* the school is right for their child, but are devastated when their child is not admitted. In addition, while application rates for the HS have remained steady, she has noted a gradually decreasing rate of matriculation — meaning that more students are being admitted off the wait list later in the spring when larger numbers of students who are admitted in the main lottery decide not to enroll.
She also reminded me — and I don’t dispute this — that while she has always understood my strong feelings that Gateway MS and Gateway HS are separate schools for the purposes of enrollment, she has always maintained that she would welcome the chance to work with kids from 6-12 grades. In the end, she said the decision to create a second early lottery was motivated by the school’s desire to work with students who are truly committed to Gateway and spare them the anxiety of going through a highly competitive lottery. As proof, she mentioned the school’s decision (despite some flak) not to participate in last weekend’s independent school fair — largely seen as a starting point for parents looking for options outside the regular SFUSD lottery.
I heard her out and I have no reason to believe–after talking to her– that Gateway made its decision with anything but the best of intentions, even if I continue to think they are seriously misguided. I told her — half joking but with a big grain of truth too — that if there is one thing we know at SFUSD, it’s all the ways an assignment system can lead to unintended consequences. “Learn from us,” I pleaded. What Gateway wants to accomplish–as stated by Ms. Olken–is laudable but it will not happen with their current policy. (Or really, any policy. In an environment where seats are in such high demand, it’s impossible to devise a way of allocating those seats that makes everyone happy if the only tool you have is a lottery or multiple lotteries).
I have two chief objections: first, setting an early deadline will just make in-the-know families apply earlier. What’s to stop them, since it’s obvious that odds will be better in the early round? I commended Gateway for making its application simpler — another long overdue improvement — but now it’s easier than ever to apply to Gateway, hold on to a spot, and wait to see how one does in the SFUSD and independent school lotteries. I’m glad Gateway isn’t touting itself to the independent school audience so far, but I am also certain it won’t take long for anyone who is interested and motivated to find out and utilize the early deadline if they have even the slightest inkling that Gateway might be a good fit for their child (and by inkling, I mean even something as flimsy as overhearing other parents say that Gateway is a good HS).
My second objection is the delicate subject of the MS students. It’s just not credible that Gateway MS won’t have all the information they need about applying to Gateway HS for the early round. Of course they will — Gateway MS would be derelict to its own students if it didn’t make sure they know that IF Gateway HS seems to be a good option, they should apply in the early round. Gateway has employed a full-time outreach coordinator, and Ms. Olken assured me today that they are being very thoughtful and purposeful in recruiting students in underserved schools. (We both laughed when I told her that the new Gateway deadline had gone out on at least one middle school’s SchoolLoop site yesterday–some of my colleagues at SFUSD do not want any charter school recruiting at district schools.) But reaching parents who are not connected to the Internet or to parent networks, and/or who don’t speak English is not an easy thing to do. Most organizations that are doing this work successfully have coordinators who speak multiple languages and maintain extensive community partnerships — and even then, the outreach work is very hard.
Finally, this decision sets a precedent, as I told Jill Tucker of the Chronicle yesterday. There is nothing, now that Gateway has thought of it and actually implemented it, for other charter schools to simply set multiple lotteries and publicize them to different preferred constituencies. The genie is out of the bottle, whether Gateway intended to set a precedent or not.
In the end, we agreed to disagree, and Ms. Olken said she would consider making changes either this year or in subsequent years. She also agreed to share with me the outcomes from this year’s lottery — whatever they are.