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Wait lists are long for popular Anchorage alternative schools

Michelle Theriault Boots

At some schools in the Anchorage School District, demand for enrollment spots outstrips supply -- by a lot.

This year, Chugach Optional Elementary School has a waiting list of more than 400 children, according to district spokeswoman Heidi Embley. Aquarian Charter School's list is "above 600," she said. Northern Lights ABC School is in the realm of 375. Sand Lake Elementary School's Japanese immersion program has a wait list of about 50; Rilke Schule German School of Arts and Sciences has about 25 children on its list for kindergarten spots.

As parents increasingly look to alternative, charter or immersion language programs, a handful of the district's most popular schools and programs have grown perennially lengthy waiting lists.

Students get in to such schools on a lottery system. Enrollment lotteries are held twice a year at any school where more parents want to enroll their kids than the school can accommodate, the district said. The first lottery happens in March and the second in August.

The process can produce desperate parents, said Kelly Kelley, who lives on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and has been trying to get her second-grader into two Eagle River charter and alternative programs.

A week before school starts on Aug. 22, her son is at the top of the waiting list at one school and number eight at another.

Last year, the district streamlined the lottery process and released step-by-step user instructions to make it "a little more user-friendly," said assistant superintendent for instruction Ed Graff.

Lotteries are still done by hand, but the district is looking into an automated, online system that would tell parents in real time their spot on a waiting list. That would help with perceptions of consistency and transparency, Graff said.

Some parents approach the lottery process with the zeal of New York City parents trying to get their children into the city's private preschools, many of which notoriously have wait lists that start months before the child's birth, said Sue Forbes, who was the principal of Aquarian Charter School for nine years before becoming principal at Chugach Optional Elementary School this year.

"Sometimes parents are actually contacting you with an infant or toddler," she said. "We have to explain that we legally cannot lottery them until kindergarten."

At the most popular programs there aren't many spots to go around.

Most students get in at the kindergarten level and don't leave the school until they graduate, said Forbes. Some 96 percent of students stayed at Aquarian, she said, meaning that not many spots opened up past kindergarten. Some families stay on the waiting list for four or five years.

Parents who focus completely on getting a child into a lottery school can be deeply frustrated if they don't get in, Forbes said. She's heard from a lot of them over the years.

"They feel like it's out of their control," she said.

Parents are interested in alternative and charter programs because they see success in them, said Graff, the assistant superintendent.

There are no plans in the immediate future to expand the district's more than 40 K-12 alternative and charter offerings, which range from career and vocational schools at the high school level to multi-sensory instruction at the elementary school level. Not all of the alternative programs and charter schools require a lottery to get in. Typically, new programs like the newer "back to basics" program at Northwood ABC Elementary School, start with the initiative of parents, teachers and community members, Graff said, though sometimes they come from the district-level down.

Often overlooked in favor of the handful of popular programs that require a lottery are neighborhood schools, Graff and Forbes said.

Some parents don't even visit their neighborhood schools before entering lotteries for alternative programs, and that's a shame, both say.

"I think we have a lot of gems there," Forbes said.

But that's cold comfort for parents like Kelly Kelley, who is determined that her son will start school in one of the two alternative programs he's near the top of the waitlist for.

"So now I get to learn how to home school my son until something opens up," she wrote in an email.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News