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Working the System to Get the School of Your Choice

Smart parents know they may need to work the system to get the school of their choice.

By Marian Wilde

It used to be that when it was time to find a school for the kids, most Americans looked no further than the neighborhood school.

Now, however, with the expansion of open enrollment policies and the growth of the charter school movement, competition to get into public schools with good reputations has become more wide-spread. A competitive admissions process is not just a private school phenomenon anymore.

"About a quarter of kids go to a school other than the one they're assigned to," says Bryan Hassel, co-author, with Emily Ayscue Hassel, of The Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School with Confidence. "Some fraction of the other three-quarters choose where they live because of a school, which is another way of exerting school choice. About 50% of families are exercising school choice."

With the ever increasing assortment of options available to parents, it's become important to not only research the schools themselves, but also the various rules, written and unwritten, of admission.

In many communities, the admissions process can be fairly complicated. In New York City, for example, parents greatly increase their chances of success by learning the system. "New York City has 32 districts, 10 regions and 1400 schools," says Pamela Wheaton, Deputy Director of, a Web site devoted to New York City public schools. "In some districts in the city you can apply to schools that aren't in your neighborhood and ask for what is called a variance. There are some programs that are open city wide. High school is pretty open, but there are some schools in certain areas of the city where unless you live in the district you can't apply. What counts for admission to many schools are the scores on the seventh grade test, but there are several systems. One is an Educational Option, which is a way of ensuring a mix of high-, middle- and low-achieving kids. So there's a specific formula of how they accept kids. Fifty percent are selected by computer and fifty percent are selected by the schools."

Comments from readers

"One thing that can really help in applying to schools is using an essay editing service to streamline your child's application. This isn't mentioned in the article, but the services provided by companies like can really make the difference between getting in, or resorting to plan b."
"my son is going to a school that is not meeting his handicap need's. tried looking on the internet for info on a school that is a lot closer to home. my family does not have transpertation. how can i get the info on line?"
"My 7 yr old granddaughter has been attending elementary school and she is going to fail first grade. My daughter is 28 years old and widowed. Her husband shot himself while he was at home caring for Casey and she was 5. She was home alone with him all day until my daughter returned from work. My daughter went through a horrendous financial as well traumatic emotional burdens and she at the time in Tennessee. Soon thereafter she was offered a transfer and promotion to Florida and she had 2 weeks to move,etc. while working,having to pack,find a place to live,school,etc.. Casey was having some difficulties in kindergarten and it was mutually decided to keep her as her birthday falls in late October and with so many changes and considering under the circumstances it seemed like the right choice. She began having problems immediately when starting First grade. My daughter has met with the teachers and has been dedicated to working with her nightly. She has come down on her hard taking away privileges,restricting her from special events and so forth. There is family history of ADHD, bipolar, dislexia,etc. I urged my daughter to having Casey tested and she did. Her pediatrician subsequently requested additional info needed in order to complete the evaluation. She has several teacher meetings and has reminded and asked that they please respond to the requests of the doctor. Yet, they have not yet done so and it has been several months and meanwhile things have not improved and Casey still struggles and my daughter is exasperated as well as exhausted and stressing to the max. Casey is not a rebellious child, she is not a child who is extremely gifted artistically,( which also runs in the family gene pool),and has,in my opinion based on my preschool teaching experience,an average intelligence.My daughter has no family or friends for support and we live in California. Do you have a! ny thoughts or suggestions in this matter as to how we can get help? Thank you for your time."
"How can i found out the correct school my child is really ,meant to go to before i look for other ones.(disrict wise) thanks renata "
"I really appreciated the article and learned a lot from it. My family and I live on Guam, through the Navy and will move to DC in 2008, when my twin sons will start Kindergarten. I'm a Brazilian and this is our first time searching for schools. Where can I look to learn about the system? What is the official criteria for a 'good school'? How do I learn which address will put me in which school? Will really appreciate your answer! :-) Happy mom on Guam! Helena"
"I am addressing the post made on 2/17/2006. It seems that there's not a connection being made between 'under-parented students' and a 'good school'. Nobody is blaming the teachers or the school administration. Viewing test scores indicate much more than teaching ability, in fact, as far as I'm concerned, every teacher in America is absolutely awesome at one of the most under-paid and demanding jobs. When I look at the test scores, I'm not measuring teacher ability, I'm looking to see if this particular school has students in it that aren't 'under-parented'. I want my child going to a school with students that are healthy, well-rounded individuals. Sometimes we find ourselves in a neighborhood that doesn't share the morals and values we practice and live by in our own homes, so I look outside the neighborhood school for a place I can feel safe sending my 5 year old little girl. -Phoenix, AZ-"
"I'm not very impressed with the 'School choice program', as I attempted 3 times to get my granddaughter (whom I now have guardianship)to Estero high school, just 5 miles from my home and down the road from my employment (Williams rd). My granddaughter has recently returned to my home after a long period of being on the Missing Child bulletins lsit for several months. After she found out that she would be assigned to Dunbar HS, and would have to ride a bus, she ran away again. She was just recently returned to me . After 3 attempts to get her enrolled into the school cloeset to me, she still has been assigned to a school very far, of which she would be assigned to ride a bus and that is an issue in itself,and she will NOT ride a bus.You see, I can take her to school daily on my way to work. It seems that we really have no choice in selecting the school that I see that would benefit her needs best, Estero High School! I see no sense in the decision to send her clear across town when the school we have chosen is so much more convenient and close, with fuel prices so high these days, these would much more economical also."
"I came across this website while researching the story about the teacher at Overland who has been suspended for daring to be critical of our government, while discussing current event issues in his 10th grade geography class. What an education I have recieved. I didn't realize that the state of Colorado doesn't support all of their childrens' right to an excellent public education. Instead I find a page educating parents about how to best help their child, and to bad for the next guy. No wonder we have the incompetent and corrupt government we currently have. What ever happened to the idea that as a community we provide for the common good?"
"You would like to run public schools like a business, but you don't want to pay market price to send your kids to public schools. There are two sides to economics, you want to control demand, but you don't want pay a price for your children's public education that would enable schools to operate as the business you seem to think they are. your kidding yourself if you think a school levy, and the taxes you pay are the price paid for public education. Last I checked I didn't have the opportunity to vote on the price of my car. I had to pay the price being asked, based on value. You think parents need to be more involved in their children's education? Yes I do too, but how about they get more involved in parenting first. This entire site is about helping parents, parents this, and parents that. How about helping the schools and the teachers in them, to deal with the 'under parented' children being sent to their classrooms in ever increasing numbers. The very fact that you seek a particular school, as opposed to another, by breaking or 'working the system', reveals you and parents like you believe that it's the school, the teachers in the school, and anybody else but yourselves, the parents who have the most influence in shaping your children. I would say the opposite. Good attentive parenting will foster the self esteem, motivation and desire within the child to make them a success in any of the thousands of public schools in this country. Not just the ones you 'work the system' to get your child into. Your test results may make pretty pie charts and cozy web sites, but test results don't measure what is inside a child who arrives at class. It’s the parents who have left the children behind, not the schools and certainly not the teachers. Mark Grassi Vancouver, WA"
"good information. I learned a lot that I did know since I am a beginner trying to get my son into a good school starting in from first grade."
"My son has a documented learning disability of dysgraphia that is addressed through an IEP with the use of a laptop from the Assistive Technology Dept. Is a learning disability a plus or minus in applying to schools? The school he wants to go to uses a lottery system, but rates the applications to determine who will be in the lottery. In the point system for scoring a students application package, would that be a positive or negative? "
"Having a grandparent living in the desired school district, and if that grandparent takes the child to school and/or picks them up and cares for them after school, (sometimes even overnight) often counts in the selection process."