Parents frustrated with Dekalb magnet school lottery

Parents angered by the selection process for Dekalb County’s magnet schools say they want to see the program expand, or go away altogether.

This year, a new new computer-generated lottery system used to select students for the magnet program omitted some students by mistakenly classifying them as living outside the district. For other students, the system dropped grades from their profile. District officials said the glitches were addressed as they arose, and hope all have been fixed.

Complaints about the process are a tradition among many DeKalb parents who say they watch each year as students with lower grades and test scores than their children are admitted into an elite program that can put students on the fast track to educational success, even beyond high school. But for many, this year’s glitches were the last straw.

“They’re all-star schools, with smaller classes and better teachers,” said Tim Halloran, 45, a marketing consultant who lives in the Brookhaven area. “Demand is more than supply, and the county has not done a thing about it. It’s no longer about merit. It’s about luck.”

Magnet schools typically offer more accelerated curricula than traditional public schools. Magnet schools have also reported higher success in reading, math and bridging the achievement gap among their students than traditional schools, according to Magnet Schools of America, a member-based nonprofit advocacy group, .

About 2,500 students are enrolled in the DeKalb School District’s magnet program, which pulls students from across DeKalb County into 13 magnet schools. Some share a building with other, general education students, but not classes.

Pat Copeland, director of the district’s school choice program, said as many as 4,000 students apply each year for about 400 available openings.

DeKalb uses a computer-generated lottery, similar to other districts, that randomly selects students based on those who fit magnet program requirements.

Parents apply online or manually for their children. On lottery day, they can visit the district’s Stone Mountain headquarters where students receive an admission number or a wait-list number.

“I’m sure every parent is applying with the hope of being selected,” Copeland said. “There’s always the thought of how can we expand.”

Michelle Bartolozzi, a speech pathologist who lives in the Brittany neighborhood in central DeKalb County, said she was forced to apply for the magnet program on paper this year for her 12-year-old daughter, Jada, due to a glitch with her online profile that incorrectly labeled her daughter ineligible. When no one in the district could fix the problem , Bartolozzi worried about the possibility of multiple lottery systems for the magnet program.

“I had a guy tell me he’d email me (about fixing online access), because he didn’t have a phone number you could call,” she said. “He never did.”

She and other parents rattle off a list of accusations about the lottery process — “a lot of heresay,” Bartolozzi says — about administrators not liking some parents and holding their children back, or of siblings being jumped to the front of the waiting list so they could attend the same school.

, It’s hard not to be suspicious, Bartolozzi said. One year, Jada was fourth on the wait list, but still didn’t get in.

Jada will be a seventh-grader in the fall, and Bartolozzi plans to keep applying.

“She wants to go,” Bartolozzi said. “There’s a social stigma placed on students who aren’t in the program, and middle school is so hard as it is. It just shouldn’t be such a win-lose situation.”

Chad Duncan, a management consultant, said the idea of hiring an attorney to look into the chaotic system has come up several times in his home, especially after the computer issues related to this year’s lottery. The Duncans have three children who, come fall, will be in the seventh grade, fourth grade and kindergarten.

“Nobody has any faith,” said Duncan, 42. “We don’t know who’s on the list, how it’s created.”

Copeland, the school choice program director for DeKalb County Schools, said the waiting list includes students who did not get into the program through general selection, but can still be admitted if other students withdraw for some reason.

Duncan said the wait list appears small enough to add a few classes to meet the needs of the students placed there.

Halloran worries about putting his twin daughters, entering the second grade, through the process. Seeing the difference in education of the students in general versus magnet programs, though, he’ll continue to apply.

“You want to apply them and get them in there because it’s like the top of the top. But how do we service all the students with these gifts?” he said.

“At a certain point, it begs the question of fairness.”

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