Working the school system

Meet six parents who beat the odds and got their child into a dream public school. Here are their tips and tales from the trenches.

By Leslie Crawford , GreatSchools Staff

Suzie Kane

Los Angeles, CA

Tip #2: Be patient – sometimes the impossible happens.

Suzie Kane's eldest son Elliot had just graduated middle school and was already enrolled in a Los Angeles public high school when she and her husband began worrying that their son "couldn't survive the massive LAUD school" he was assigned.

It was more than a long shot, but they went ahead and put in their application to High Tech La School, a public charter, in June after all the spots had been assigned. They were number 90 on the waiting list. Still, she, her husband, and son toured the small, project-based high school and decided it was the one for Elliot. "We were definitely praying hard!" says Kane

Although it seemed like they didn't stand a chance, Kane didn't give up. Throughout the summer, she called the school to see to see if they'd moved up on the list. "I kept calling and would say, 'How is the list looking? Have we budged?'" While Kane doesn't know if it made a difference to check in with the school, still she wanted to make the personal connection and remind them that she remained hopeful and determined. After all, the same approach had worked when she gently persisted for both elementary and middle school.

Their hope had all but faded by summer's end. Then two days before school was to start, while she and her son were out buying school clothes, she got a call from the school saying Elliot had a spot. "We were shocked. We absolutely thought we weren't getting in." Kane says they were so ecstatic they began dancing in the store. "That phone call has changed our whole lives. My son has found the school that is perfect for him."

Kane's words of wisdom:

"It's important if possible to connect with an administrator or staff and put a voice to your name. And be nice."

Cheryl Pope

Detroit, MI

Tip #3: Do your research.

When the second grade class at a Detroit elementary school wasn't challenging her daughter Zaria, Cheryl Pope tried to be patient. But fearing her daughter would fall farther and farther behind in a school that, for more than two years, hadn't made the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) rating, she eventually gave up and began looking for a new school.

When Pope discovered that, under the No Child Left Behind Act, you can transfer out of a non-performing school, she began her mission to move Zaria to a better school. She turned into a public school detective, asking countless parents and teachers for school recommendations, visiting high-ranking schools, meeting with principals, and visiting open houses. Finally, her daughter's former Head Start teacher told her about Cryster Elementary, a journalism magnet school and one of Detroit's top elementary schools.

"When I called I thought, 'There's probably a long list of parents on the waiting list,'" says Pope. The news was worse than this. School had begun two weeks earlier and the second grade class was full. Still, Pope was put on a waiting list. Two weeks later, she received a call that Zaria had could come in and take a test to see if she qualified for acceptance. Her daughter passed and is now happily a cub reporter in training. "I was so happy," says Pope, who knew her diligence had been worth it when she asked what her daughter did at her new school. "At her old school, she used to say, 'We watched a movie.' At her new school, she'd say things like, "I learned about the main idea." She is being challenged here. I love it."

Pope's words of wisdom:

"Perseverance and patience is key. Research the type of school you want your child to go to. Go to the school you're thinking about. Go to the open house, talk with the principal, talk with the teachers, and maybe some of the parents. Ask them how they feel about the school."


Janine Bush

Boxboro, MA

Tip #4: Look for loopholes (they often exist).

Talk about timing. They were so unhappy with their child's elementary, that Janine Bush and her husband sold their house so they could move from Stow to the neighboring town of Boxboro, which boasted one of the top 20 elementary schools in Massachusetts.

Little did they know that they didn't need to move as a way to get their daughter into the highly regarded Blanchard Memorial Elementary: They would have gotten into it anyway. Earlier that year, they'd put their kindergarten-aged daughter Alaina's name on what's called the "School Choice" list – a competitive process by which a few kids to transfer to schools outside their neighborhood. Instead, the Bushes made a financial sacrifice, moving to a more expensive house, to assure their daughter admission.

No sooner had they moved into their new home then they received a call from Boxboro's superintendent: They had gotten the last spot on the list, so wouldn't have had to move after all. "Who would have guessed we would have been one of the people picked?" Looking back, Bush says she wishes she'd had done things a bit differently, including studying school districts more scrupulously when she and her husband were first buying a home. But at least Bush's story is more sweet than bitter, she concedes, since her two children, Alaina and second-grader Derek love their school.

Bush's words of wisdom:

"Look into the school district before you move to a town. And if there's a school you want to get into, find out if there are any loopholes that may help you. There are all these things you don't realize. Things you may not have known about."

Brenda Zofrea, M.A.Ed.

Bradenton, Fla.

Tip #1: Be persistent (but polite).

Seven years ago, Brenda Zofrea's family moved from New Jersey to Bradenton, Fla. Her son was placed in a public school that clearly wasn't working for him. Fortunately, the district's "School Choice" system permits families unhappy with their assignments to apply elsewhere. Zofrea visited over a dozen elementary schools before striking gold with Rowlett Magnet Elementary, a title-one school with a top-notch staff, principal, curriculum, and after-school program. The problem? Over 200 students were already on the waiting list. Undeterred, she went straight home and dug out everything from her son's straight-A report cards to his outstanding attendance records.

Then Zofrea returned to the school, asked to meet with the principal and handed him the evidence of her son's stellar academic history. "I said, 'My Flynn, if you will please accept my child this year, he will do well in school. He'll never be a behavior problem. He'll be on time. I will volunteer.' Finally he said, 'Let me see what I can do.'" Zofrea's persistence paid off. Zachary, now 15, got into Rowlett and, she says, "got a great education." Zofrea, who has since become a teacher herself, says that when she runs into her son's former principal at school district events, "He introduces me as 'the mom who harassed me.' But I think he saw how important education was to me and that my son would be an asset to the school."

Zofrea's words of wisdom:

"Find out what the school [you want] values […]. Find out if the school looks for parent participation. Then offer those things. Be creative, persistent, and polite. You have to make yourself, and your child, stand out."

Susanne Maddux

San Francisco, CA

Tip #5: Wait it out.

When parents apply to San Francisco's notoriously difficult public school lottery system, they are permitted to put down their top seven choices. Frequently, their child isn't even assigned one of their choices. Which is exactly what happened to Maddux, who had her eye on Rooftop Elementary, an arts magnet public school that she knew would be just right for her four-year-old son Cosmo.

Unlike many San Francisco parents, however, Maddux didn't let the "Will we or won't we?" stress take over. She was in the enviable position of having another good choice since Cosmo, whose birthday is in August, could attend another year of preschool. Still, she kept his name on the waiting list. "We heard from our preschool and a neighbor who give me the skinny on everything," says Maddux. "They told me to hold out."

All summer, she kept checking online to see where Maddux placed on the waiting list, until finally concluding, "We're probably not going to get in." By the time Maddux started his pre-K program , she gave it little thought. "Then I got a phone call on his tenth day of school saying, 'This is the San Francisco public school system. We have an opening. You have 24 hours to decide.' "

Immediately, Maddux took her son to visit and he started school that day. He's now a happy third grader who is thriving at the arts-centric school. "Cosmo missed the first ten days of school, which he didn't even notice! Small price to pay."

Maddux's words of wisdom:

"Wait. I just say wait. You see parents who are really similar our family's. They've gotten into schools by waiting it out."

Sandra Mendoza

Houston, Texas

Tip #6: Make sure you have plan B.

Sandra Mendoza knows just how lucky she is. Several years ago, when her son Enrique was four years old, her sister-in-law tipped her off that a KIPP Academy charter school was opening a new school in Houston. For years, Mendoza's sister-in-law had been singing KIPP's praises, raving about how great it had been for her kids — the dedication to strong academics, the kind and firm discipline, the year-round school hours, and the expectation that all the kids would go to college.

So she made a bee-line for KIPP SHINE Prep and applied. Like public charters across the country, students are accepted by lottery. Mendoza won, and Enrique was able to start in the school's first pre-school — the best time to get in, since few students ever leave Shine. Enrique just graduated fifth grade and is continuing onto KIPP's middle school; his younger sister, who got sibling preference, just started second grade.

Mendoza's words of wisdom:

"I know it's hard and sometimes it feels impossible you'll get in. But just keep trying. But you also have to have options. When I applied to KIPP, l also had other options, in case it didn't work. I have a friend who wants his child to get into KIPP. His child is already in fifth grade and hasn't been chosen. I told him to just try looking for another school that has the same philosophy. That can be hard, but it's better not to get frustrated and say, 'okay, I give up.'"

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.