Playing the lottery

Don’t tell me I can’t identify with poor families from Harlem. I, too, have waited for “Superman.”

Last week, I arrived at the lottery for the charter school my wife and I want our son to attend for kindergarten this fall. I brought with me a hope built on months of prayers, and a randomly assigned four-digit number.

When I talk to people who have seen the 2010 movie “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” they tend to talk about the ending. That’s when families from Harlem (and elsewhere) learn if fate will consign their children to the “dropout factory” in their neighborhood, or open the door to a better school offering a better shot at a better life.

Less was at stake for most people at Tuesday’s lottery. Some of them live in neighborhoods with excellent schools. Some will choose a private school instead.

My wife and I decided a while back that our neighborhood school wasn’t right for our son. It was a difficult decision, born of talks with his teachers, cold hard data, and some of those prayers I mentioned earlier.

Private school isn’t financially realistic for us right now. It looked as if we’d have to move.

So when we learned a charter school was seeking to open nearby, we looked into it. It sounded like everything we could want for both of our boys.

We weren’t alone: More than 800 families signed up to enroll more than 1,300 kids in the school. Problem is, it can accept only about 450 kids. By law charter schools, which are publicly funded and can’t choose their students, have to hold a lottery if they’re oversubscribed.

Dozens of us gathered to watch it take place. A computer display was projected onto a large screen, showing hundreds of four-digit numbers listed sequentially. A mouse button was clicked. The numbers were scrambled; children’s futures began to be ordered.

School leaders posted the lottery results. Adults strained to see how high or low their four-digit number was on the priority list from which the seats would be filled.

Ours was fairly high: a reason for hope. A friend whose son is in pre-K with mine finally found his toward the bottom: out of luck.

Unlike in “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” there were no tears from him or anyone else I saw. “We’ll be OK,” he said. “We have options.” That’s one feeling those families from Harlem don’t share with us.

In the movie, “Superman” isn’t a winning lottery number. It’s the false notion an educational superhero can save the day by fixing the entire system.

But as the numbers ahead of ours filled up the roster for kindergarten, I felt a sensation that seemed to call for Superman in a different way: falling, and helpless to stop it.

Soon there were only 10 spots left. Then five.

Four. Three. Two. One.


There is, however, a happy ending for us. We are very high on the wait list. If just a few families make a different choice about their kids’ schooling, we’ll get our choice.

But how is it right to have so few good options, and so many restrictions on the ones there are, that one family’s choice depends so heavily on another’s?

And if families with options can feel trapped, imagine being a family without options. Imagine those families from Harlem watching as politicians like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio try to shut down some of the few escapes they can hope for.

That’s waiting for “Superman” and getting Lex Luthor. It’s the wrong story for our kids. It’s time to write a new one.

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