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Winning the School Lottery

Against all odds, Jessica Hopper gets a prime spot in the Chicago public school system.
(Photo: Gary Neill)

(Photo: Gary Neill)

Last spring, we entered our oldest son, William, in the school lottery. We hoped to get him admitted to one of the Chicago public school system’s three tuition-free Montessori pre-kindergarten programs. He was three.

There were about 150 open spots for three-year-olds—and an average of 2,000 families vying for each school. Most people, of course, get wait-listed; the best we’d ever heard for a wait-list spot was number 600. Getting into preschool seemed mythological.

When our letter arrived in late March, I turned it over and over searching for the fine print, just to be sure the contents weren’t a cruel mistake. William had been offered enrollment at two schools.

Every weekday, thousands of kids on Chicago’s South and West sides walk past their recently shuttered schools to new ones—some situated in rival neighborhood gang territory.

I knew better than to broadcast our results—too many friends and families were still waiting for their own letters, still hoping for a shred of good news. I only told William’s day-school teachers, and a friend whose daughter was in private school. Word got around. In the parking lot of William’s school later that week, another mother congratulated us by laying out our good fortune for just one of the schools we got into: “Two thousand seven hundred sixty-three. That’s how many families were wait-listed this year.” (At the other school, a mere 1,827.) “Thanks!” I yelled over the top of our Subaru as I scuttled William into his car seat.

In one of the most underfunded public school systems in the country, the “good” schools—those with active parent communities, libraries, and music and art instruction—are jewels. Weighing our options between two of them felt like wondering aloud whether to drive the Bentley or the Benz.

Friends would prod me to confide the secret of how we made it happen. Who did we know? How did we game the system? It was such an awkward situation that I stopped telling people we got into two schools. It felt like gloating to mention we had options when friends were weighing the prospect of expatriating to the suburbs.

For one friend, whose three-year-old with special educational needs was being shunted to a comparatively awful public school across town, I fashioned an excuse I wasn’t sure was true: that we live in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, where most of the other three-year-olds go to the local Ukrainian parochial school—meaning less competition for the public-school seats allotted to our area.

I ran this idea past Christine Whitley, the de facto expert on Chicago Public Schools’ labyrinthine lottery and testing systems. “Well, statistically it’s very unlikely—but not impossible,” she said. Whitley consulted a proximity map (the first cut is based on proximity to a given school) and a map of our neighborhood’s socioeconomic “tier” (a secondary factor). This year median household income slipped in our tiny Midwestern Ukrainian stronghold, which moved us from the tightly competitive Tier 4 ranking to the slightly less competitive Tier 3. But, at a loss for a definitive explanation for how William won two independent lotteries, Whitley expressed the thought that had been playing at the edges of my mind all along: “Sometimes, it’s just luck.”

Every weekday, thousands of kids on Chicago’s South and West sides walk past their recently shuttered schools to new ones—some situated in rival neighborhood gang territory. These children are escorted by police and Safe Passage workers, who are paid $10 an hour by the city. The school we chose for William has amenities that are increasingly rare in Chicago: a library, teaching assistants, air conditioners. After a $250,000 budget cut, parents at one of these schools ran a multi-year fundraising campaign to save its art and music classes. Last year, after $68 million in cuts to the city’s public school classroom budget, some schools held donation drives for toilet paper.

Most days, when I pick William up and ask him how school was, he answers, “It was good.” And again, I feel the crush of our good fortune.

We should all be so lucky.

This post originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue ofPacific Standardas “The Lottery.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.