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Local families try their luck in charter school lottery

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Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 7:46 pm

The moms and dads of two-dozen five year olds sat on long green benches in an elementary school cafeteria in North Stockton. In front of them was a large cardboard box covered in blue butcher paper with “2013-14 Kindergarten” printed on the side. Inside were the names of 230 children.

There was little conversation as the minutes ticked toward 9 a.m. when a volunteer would begin to call out names. A class list printed on five huge sheets of paper was tacked on the far wall. More than half the class was already full from students with family at the school. Only 29 places remained for the parents who filed in, filling the air with tension.

This was the scene last week at Vincent Shalvey Academy, an Aspire Charter School. In early spring, all schools begin making their class lists for the next year. Most children sign up and attend the school closest to their house. But parents who want their children to attend a popular charter school have to cross their fingers that their name will be drawn in a lottery.

Shalvey is one of several charter schools in the area of the Lodi Unified School District, but the district doesn’t have much to do with it other than approving the charter every few years. Within that charter is a rule stating the school must take in anyone who applies. However, with class sizes in the 20s and an API score of 897, many more applications come in than there is room for in classrooms. That’s where the lottery rule comes in, to give each student a fair chance.

Two families were setting their hopes on a lucky draw of the charter lottery to find a place for their five year olds.

Breanna Navarro will be five years old in June, and she wants to know where her big girl school is. Her mother Beatris Navarro is weighing the options for kindergarten. The family lives in Lockeford and can attend schools in Lodi or Galt, where a half-day kindergarten class is offered, but Navarro works in Stockton. Finding a half-day of childcare is tricky.

For her, Aspire schools look like the answer. It’s a full day of lessons, and children keep the same teacher for two years at a time.

“There’s a reason 200 parents want their kids to go. People tell me she’s only in kindergarten and why should I worry now. But that’s where it all starts,” she said.

Breanna is an only child, but her fate in the lottery could affect her future siblings.

“Once you have a child in Aspire, the rest of the siblings can get in. My kids that aren’t even born will have a good education,” she said.

Marisse Fernandez is the mother of two boys, and came to California ten years ago from the Philippines. Her first job was working as an substitute assistant for special needs students.

“I didn’t have any culture shock except for in the schools,” she said. Fernandez saw students in her classrooms that didn’t appreciate or take full advantage of the free schooling, and she knew she wanted her kids to go somewhere different.

Charter schools might be the answer for her. Fernandez noted the smaller class sizes, high academic ranking, and the close ties parents and families developed with their teachers.

Her oldest son Juan Carlos Fernandez got into Langston Hughes Academy charter school in Stockton, and Fernandez liked the challenging coursework.

Now she wants her five year old, Jason Fernandez, to have the same education. But she’s not keen on the pressure of the lottery.

“It’s a lot. I’m just taking it as if its not meant to be, it won’t be,” she said.

The application process is straightforward. Parents fill out a form and are invited to tour the school and meet with teachers. There are no tests or interviews involved.

“It’s crazy. We need more schools,” said office manager Connie Ibarra, who entered the names in a database.

Jamie Marlow, a parent volunteer, stuffed all the applications into a large cardboard box covered in bright blue butcher paper. She reached her arm in to mix up the pile and begin the long process of calling out every name.

Parents and families were virtually silent as they sat on the long benches of school lunch tables. No one wanted to risk missing his or her child’s name.

Emotions run high. “It’s hard for me to be in there,” said VSA principal Karla Fachner, who only stopped in for a moment.

One morn cried to see her child got in, she said, and another took a photo of the poster with their child’s name on it.

If a family doesn’t get in, Fachner points out the wait list.

“Every year there have been some opportunities. You just have to wait and see and have hope,” she said. Openings may come at the end of the school year.

The lottery session is open to the public, but not every parent attends. Most wait for a telephone call later in the week.

Of the twenty parents in the room, only three heard their child’s name called by the time the class was full.

But families remained seated, tense and attentive, hoping they would be called early enough on the wait list to keep hoping.

“We would love to build more schools but it’s costly to do that,” said Fachner, who is reluctant to increase class sizes. “We believe in small schools. It makes a difference.”

Jason Fernandez was called for spot number 82. His mother laughed, knowing he would not be attending VSA.

“Maybe by grade five he’d get in,” she joked. Not likely. No one really leaves a charter school except by growing up and going on to the next school.

The five year old in a SpongeBob t-shirt also had his name in the box at Aspire Port City Academy.

Jason’s older brother Juan Carlos attended that school, and went on to Langston Hughes Academy, an Aspire High School on the same campus.

Fernandez thought her younger son would automatically get into Port City, through the sibling rule. It doesn’t count if the first child has moved on.

Now, Fernandez will wait for a phone call. She’ll know in a few days if her son got in at Port City, or if he’ll be attending Ansel Adams elementary school in the fall.

“It’s fate. It’s chance,” she said.

Navarro doesn’t know at what number her daughter’s name was called.

“I waited until 100 and I thought “This is crazy,” and I had to go back to work,” she said. “ it is what it is. It’s a great school, but my daughter isn’t going. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

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