How A Lottery Determines The Path For Many Pittsburgh Students

Jan 31, 2017

Emmaline Thompson, 9, danced around the dining room table with her 3-year-old sister and the family’s pitbull as her mom prepared dinner. Her mom, Rebecca Maclean, gathered the kids and made them sit at the table to watch as Emmaline opened a letter from the Pittsburgh Public School District.

“We have received the application for Emmaline to attend grade four of the Fulton French magnet program,” she read aloud, carefully spelling and sounding out several words in the letter. “Emmaline is currently number two on the waiting list.”

Maclean, filled out an application in December for her daughter to attend a language-focused magnet school. In early January, names were drawn from a lottery before acceptance letters were dropped in the mail. 

Rebecca is thinking now about where her 9-year-old will attend high school. She’ll have a better chance of getting into Obama Academy, a 6-12 school in East Liberty that focuses on foreign language if she starts a language now.

Emmaline’s letter said she was put on a waiting list and will have to take free tutoring class through the magnet school this spring.

If she passes a language proficiency assessment, she’ll be in. Rebecca said her son Duncan Rieger also went through that process.

“And we didn’t have any problems with that. So that’s good," she said. "You’re second on the list to get into Fulton."

She smiled at her daughter and explained what the tutoring classes would be like.

Rebecca Maclean, right, watches her son Duncan Thompson, left, open a letter from Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Maclean, like many parents in the city, applied for a magnet school because it gives her kids a focus subject.

A magnet is a public school or program within a school, with a specific concentration. Taylor Allderdice High School has an engineering program, the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy focuses on science and Brashear High School has a teaching academy.

There are nearly 25,000 students in the district. This year almost 3,500 applied for a magnet and about 1,300 were accepted. A student can apply for up to three schools.

The district uses a lottery to keep the system fair. But, there are some weights, including sibling preference, program continuation, economic disadvantage and the geographic region of the school. A Supreme Court decision three years ago determined weight could not be contingent upon race. This year’s applicants reflect the district’s demographic makeup.

Christine Cray, director of student services reform, said a weight puts a child’s name in the system one more time.

“So every child’s got their name and at least once and then if you've got three weights your name is in there three times. So it's not a guarantee that a student will be accepted but their chances are greater if they've got additional weight,” she said.

Magnets are offered to give families options, but for many families it ends up being a way to avoid attending their neighborhood public school. Krissa Caroff lives in Brighton Heights and applied for her 10-year-old daughter to attend Obama Academy. 

Perry High School would be her daughter’s neighborhood high school and default option for staying in the district. When it comes to Keystone and PSSA scores, Perry is a poor-performing school. Caroff said a magnet school is the only way she would keep her daughter in the public school district.

“So we have to think about private school which now is not really in our budget but it's something that we have to think about. We also have to think about moving out of the district,” she said.

Caroff’s daughter was not selected in the lottery. She is 53rd on the waiting list for Obama. Caroff said her family is weighing their options.

As for Maclean, she’s started thinking about the best path for her 3-year-old, Bridget. If her middle child can get into a magnet program, Bridget can get a sibling preference weight for Kindergarten. Then she’ll be on the same trajectory for high school.