This article was originally published in 2017; we have updated it with current links for 2020.
My 5-year-old talked a lot.
When relatives came to visit, they always had the same question: “Does he ever stop talking?”
So when it came time for kindergarten, my husband and I knew what we wanted to do: Put that mouth to good use and in a dual-language immersion program through the Portland Public Schools lottery.
Entering the lottery was an easy decision for me. I grew up in Arizona around Spanish speakers; I studied in Mexico in college; I have a friend whose kids went through the immersion program at Ainsworth. Her kids are bilingual now, and I wanted mine to be, too.
For many parents, though, the decision to attend a school outside their neighborhood can seem stressful and not worth the hassle. It doesn’t have to be quite so daunting, so long as you do your research, and get to know the ins, outs, dos and don’ts of the lottery system.
This month, schools in the lottery program start their open houses, asking families to come visit and consider questions like: Do I want my child to walk to school with her friends? Or do I want my kid to learn Mandarin?
Judy Brennan, director of enrollment and transfer at PPS, said to remind yourself from the get-go that the lottery is just one option.
“The parents who seem the most satisfied at the end this process are ones who felt like they had many good choices and they could live with all of them,” said Brennan.
Exploring the options
For the 2016-2017 school year, PPS had 21 schools in the lottery. Of those, 15 offered dual language learning and six had other focus options, like math/science or the arts. (An additional seven charter schools within PPS operate their own lotteries.) Every year, PPS gets about 3,500 lottery applications, or 7 percent of all students, according to Brennan. Learn more about PPS lottery schools for 2020-2021.
The most popular schools in the lottery offer students different focus areas: Winterhaven for science and math; Creative Science School for “inquiry based” learning and Buckman and da Vinci Middle School for arts.
Spanish immersion is another popular choice for Portland parents; this year, 835 applicants were for Spanish immersion programs offered at 10 schools. Nearly one-fourth of the Spanish-language applicants were for Ainsworth — the only Spanish immersion elementary school program on the west side of the Willamette River. There is also Russian immersion at Kelly, Mandarin at King and Woodstock, Japanese at Richmond, and Vietnamese at Roseway Heights.Because lottery programs do not generally offer transportation, the lottery program gives an advantage to families with cars, money and time to transport their kids. Moreover, some schools on the “lottery” list aren’t really lottery; Sunnyside, for example, an environmental focus school near Southeast 34th Avenue near Belmont, is nearly impossible to lottery into because it’s packed with neighborhood kids.
A PPS committee, known as the Ed Options Review team, is looking at these and other issues, but for now, the lottery goes on.
STEM or Spanish?
Winterhaven principal Mark Sandilands said many of the parents who lottery into his Brooklyn neighborhood school want science, technology, engineering or math for their children because the parents themselves work in those fields.
“Most of the families, if they have a background in math or science, what I have noticed over the years is their student does have an interest in math or science,” said Sandilands.
That was the case with Isabella Rigelman, who attended Winterhaven and graduated from Franklin High School in 2015.
“My mom, she’s a math professor at Portland State,” said Rigelman, 20. “She wanted a strong STEM program, and Winterhaven had that.”
Rigelman is currently studying biomedical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. She said Winterhaven had an “amazing impact” on her life.
“I feel like once I got into high school, the math and science classes weren’t as difficult,” Rigelman said. “There’s a formal lab report method and I had already known how to do that since I was very young.”
Principals, parents and administrators said the best way for families to figure out which school might be the best fit is to visit schools, talk to staff and meet other families.
“My advice is to attend as many informational meetings as possible at a number of different schools,” said Sandilands. “You want to look at what is the focus of the school, what is your child interested in. If you’re looking to compare it with your neighborhood school, what are the similarities and differences?”
And keep in mind that the odds of getting in might not be good.
“Our building isn’t very big,” said Sandilands. “Our capacity is 355 in this building.”
That means there are 24 spots in kindergarten and 34 or so in sixth grade. Sandilands said that 24 percent of applicants who chose Winterhaven as their first choice for kindergarten in 2015-2016 got in. The percentage was higher — 30 percent — for sixth grade applicants.
At Emerson School, a project-based learning charter school in downtown Portland, kindergarten has a waiting list of nearly 200 children for a class of 24. (Emerson staff did not return calls for comment.)
Once a family decides to try for a lottery spot for their child, some schools require parents to attend a meeting and sign a “statement of understanding.” Then parents list their top three choices, submit their application and wait to get a letter from PPS.
Preferences are given to siblings of students already enrolled in a lottery school; most dual-language programs offer neighborhood families a priority in the lottery. The high school lottery will open February 1 and closes on February 22. The lottery for elementary, middle and K-8 schools will open on February 8 and closes on March 3.
And the winner is …
When I got my letter from PPS with the lottery results, I was sad; my son didn’t lottery into an immersion program at any of my three choices: Ainsworth, Atkinson or Bridger.
But I still wanted it. So I called the district office to inquire about options for other Spanish language programs.
I was told there might be space at Harvey Scott, on NE 68th and Prescott, and I should try a hardship petition, one way a family can get into a focus school without winning a spot through the lottery. My hardship petition was successful, and my son started at Harvey Scott’s Spanish immersion as a 5-year-old.
But he struggled from the beginning. He had tantrums at drop off and struggled with handwriting. We later learned he had a fine-motor delay.
So we pulled him out after one semester and sent him back to preschool — Spanish immersion at the private International School downtown. We would start kindergarten over again when he was 6 years old.
But all the transitions took a toll on us; in 12 months, my son had been at three schools: preschool, Harvey Scott and The International School.
At the end of the school year at International School, we decided to put him in our neighborhood school, Buckman.
This year he’s in second grade. We can walk there. A classmate lives behind us. A teaching aide lives across the street.
My son still talks a lot.
But instead of talking in Spanish, he talks about playing Anansi in the school play, or what he did in art today, or how his second grade teacher does this cool thing called “Would you rather?” where the kids have to answer a question like, “Would you rather live in outer space or under the sea?”
And I’m hoping he’ll take Spanish when he gets to high school.
The petition process
Diane Zipper lives in North Portland but wanted her daughter to attend Buckman in SE Portland.
“It was warm and friendly and there is student art everywhere,” said Zipper. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ Our daughter just really loved dancing and drawing and music. The fit was so great for her at Buckman.”
Zipper’s daughter won a lottery spot at Buckman. When she finished fifth grade, she wanted to continue at arts-focused da Vinci Middle School.
She didn’t get in, so Zipper submitted a petition application and asked five Buckman staff members to write a letter to da Vinci on her daughter’s behalf.
She wrote that it would be nearly impossible for her to pick up her younger son at Buckman and her daughter if she attended their neighborhood school, K-8 Beach, since both schools had the same dismissal time.
Her petition application was successful, and her daughter was admitted to da Vinci.
“The drawback is we don’t know a lot of neighborhood kids that we might otherwise know,” Zipper said. “If my kids want to schedule a play date, that might be in Sellwood and I live in North Portland.”
Her daughter is now a freshman at Jefferson High School, where she auditioned and got a space on the acclaimed Jefferson Dancers.
Click here to learn more about the Portland Public School lottery.
- Lottery Lowdown - February 8, 2020
- The After-School Divide - August 16, 2018
- Why PDX Families Stay (or not) in Their Neighborhood School - September 26, 2017