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It's called winning the lottery -- the education lottery, that is. The stakes are high, but the payoff isn't money; it's the right place in a Buffalo public school.

This year up to 10,000 applications will be made for about 3,500 spots in the magnet schools and early childhood centers. If you're looking for a kindergarten, you'll have at least 17 schools to consider. Parents of preschoolers may be able to enter three different lotteries.

"Buffalo has a wonderful system," says Carol Needham, acting director of the Early Childhood Centers and Academies. "Different children have different needs. There is a school to meet every one of them."

And, parents, heed this advice: It is not too early to start thinking about placing your child in a school next fall. If your child will be 3 years old by Jan. 1, 1992, he or she is not too young to enroll.

Here are some steps you can take immediately:

Visit or call the Magnet School Placement and Early Childhood Centers and Academies offices in City Hall for brochures and applications. You've got until Feb. 15 to apply.

Tour schools. Schools will make appointments for individuals to visit; some will allow you to sit in on classes. Magnet
Open House Week is right before deadline.

Talk to friends and neighbors, other parents, and current and former staff and students -- anyone with an opinion, insight or experience to share.

Once you've applied, assume nothing. Even personal delivery of an application is no guarantee that it was recorded. When calling for information, get the name and title of the person you spoke with. If incorrect information leads to problems, you'll have a good defense.

Today's Buffalo school system is the product of a 1972 lawsuit brought by minority parents. In 1976, Federal District Judge John T. Curtin ordered that the schools be desegregated.

With input from parents, he and former school superintendent, the late Eugene Reville, and then-deputy Superintendent Joseph Murray developed the concept of magnet schools and early childhood centers. The idea was to create such outstanding programs that parents would want their children bused from their neighborhoods to attend these schools.

And while going to school for many pupils is no longer a simple matter of walking to the neighborhood building, higher test scores indicate that the system is much improved. Buffalo has become an award-winning model for the rest of the country.

Last year, my husband and I went through the process of finding a school for the fall of 1990 for our boys, then 2 and 4 years old. The hunt started in January and ended in June. By then I was exhausted, having invested more time, energy and emotion than I had in applying to college nearly 20 years ago.

Unlike many parents, at least we were aware of the midwinter magnet deadline. The first of two previous attempts to enroll our older son, Jacob, in a magnet school failed because we were too late.

The magnet office publicizes the deadline through newspaper and radio advertisements and via community organizations. Private schools are also contacted.

Still, the official notification may seem inadequate in a society where the birth of a baby unleashes a posse of product manufacturers, tracking down the new parents with mail coupons and phone-sales offers.

University at Buffalo law professor Charles Carr, who was deciding where to send his son, Justin, for kindergarten last year, found out about the deadline from a friend.

"I'm a regular newspaper reader and I never saw anything about it," he says. "They ought to do a better job of letting parents know what's available. If you know, your child gets a bite of the apple. If not, you're out of luck."

Parents of kindergartners today face enormous pressures. A certain skill level and maturity is expected from pupils. Reports warn that children who go to school too early may suffer permanent damage to their self-esteem and that the right approach and teacher are critical.

But Buffalo parents have additional worries. There are 17 elementary magnets but only nine for the upper grades. Only a student who graduates from the Frederick Law Olmsted Gifted and Talented magnet is guaranteed a spot at City Honors High School, a magnet, which is considered by many to be the best public high school in Buffalo. It has the highest number of Regents Scholarship winners of city public schools.

"That's the biggest long-term pressure parents face -- trying to get their kids in the right place early on because there are not a lot of options later," says parent Helene Raichilson. "Everybody wants their children to have the option of going to college."

If there's a right school, there's also a right time to apply.

Because we were satisfied with our sons' preschool, we did not seriously investigate public schools until it was time for Jacob to attend kindergarten. Then we found that, of the four magnet schools we were interested in, one accepted children as young as 2, another took 3-year-olds, and the third accepted 4-year-olds.

Openings tended to dwindle with succeeding grade levels. We had already missed our best opportunity to get Jacob into the school of our choice. We saw that we couldnot make the same mistake with his younger brother, Christopher.

Raichilson had decided that the Bennett Park Montessori Center was the best school for her son, Andy, and applied when he was 2. "I was outside when I opened our acceptance. I screamed and said to Andy, 'You got into Montessori! Your life is settled.' This little thing in diapers, splashing in a mud puddle, just looked at me."

Bennett Park is one of the two magnets with a program for 3-year-olds. The other is at Campus West/College Learning Lab, but students for that and the class for 4-year-olds are selected through a lottery that is open to any New York State resident.

Aside from the magnet schools, there are three other programs for 4-year-olds:

In 11 city districts, children who will be 4 by Jan. 1, 1992 can enter a lottery for a spot in an Early Childhood Center. These offer all-day programs that stress thinking, reading and mathematics and continually test pupils for progress.

Children in 13 high-poverty target areas, regardless of family income, are eligible to attend Project Early Push, a federally funded intervention and enrichment program designed to stimulate physical, emotional, social and intellectual growth.

In addition, the state funds 34 prekindergarten classes that reserve space for children of low-income and single-parent households. This program features small class sizes with full-time teachers and aides and encourages parental involvement in instruction.

Registration for the latter two programs is held the first week of school.

The benefits of education for children as young as 3 "is a proven fact," says Verna Morton, director of the Magnet School Placement Office. "Tests show that children in Head Start, for example, get off to a better start in school and excel," she says. "Usually they go on to higher education."

Except for Campus North, magnet schools accept children from all over the city. Some are filled solely through the lottery while others also accept neighborhood children.

And interested suburban parents might look into the state's Urban/Suburban Grant Program, which allows suburban students to fill a slot at a city magnet school if a city child of the same grade and race is not available.

How do you decide which school is best for your child?

Joan Slattery, the magnet office's community education leader, and Morton are available to speak to groups about the different magnet programs.

Morton also suggests that parents visit the schools themselves. "Parents know their own children better than anyone else," she says. "A firsthand look should help them decide if one school would be a better place than another."

She recommends that parents visit when classes are in session, but not at lunchtime. And not necessarily during Open House Week. "Anyone will put their best foot forward when company is expected," she says.

Still, some parents require more than brochures and a visit to make their decision. Karen McKenna was a newcomer to the city when she looked into programs for her daughter, Kate, soon to be 4.

"If you're totally new to the city, the choices are overwhelming," she says. "We didn't know where to turn for information except to other parents. But everybody's experience is different."

McKenna got an introduction to the magnet system in a program put on by Kate's preschool at Westminster Presbyterian Church. "How good it would be if someone would sit down with you and help you evaluate the different programs and match them with your child. Even newspaper articles about the special characteristics of each school would help."

Helen Ferraro-Zaffram credits her neighbors with helping her choose the Early Childhood Center at School 54 and guiding her through the process of applying for her daughter, Kimberly. "If my neighbors weren't so knowledgeable, I can see where we might have missed the deadline," she says. "They were very well informed. I would just call the school to verify what they told me."

When Raichilson entered Andy in last year's lottery for kindergarten in the Olmsted Gifted and Talented Magnet, located at School 64, she toured, spoke to parents and "dug up all the information I could."

"I was nuts," she says. "I couldn't decide which educational philosophy I believed in. I had lists of pros and cons. You could have tossed a coin in the end."

Before setting our sights on a magnet school, we considered other options. Another year of preschool for both boys was our alternative. I ruled out home schooling after deciding that at least our parent-child relationship was not the most conducive to learning. Forming a group and having the adults take turns teaching the class might help, but such an arrangement might be too time-consuming and frustrating.

Private schools charge from $1,000 to nearly $6,000 a year, just for kindergarten. We still had to consider saving for college, and I couldn't be sure the children would be taught to take care of us in our penniless old age.

We were the envy of some parents because our neighborhood school is the Olmsted magnet. School 64 houses kindergarten through Grade 2. But I was concerned that a neighborhood child would feel inferior to the gifted and talented pupils, who make up half the student body and are pulled out of class to work with special resource teachers.

After considerable research, I knew what I wanted in a school. I wanted a program that was developmentally oriented, had dedicated teachers and offered of community in which positive goals and values were shared.

The magnet application allowed three choices. During open house week we focused on four schools. The science magnet was appealing because of the enthusiasm accompanying the opening of the city's newest educational facility. But we decided against applying because of an open-classroom style that we doubted would suit Jacob and the specter of chaos if the building wasn't completed by the first day of school.

Campus West, located on the Buffalo State College campus, was closest to our home and closest to what the boys had been experiencing at the University at Buffalo Early Childhood Center. Both schools enjoy direct access to the latest thinking among educators and take advantage of the energy of teachers in training.

But Campus West gave us our most frustrating experience. It alone scheduled its open house after the application deadline. Requests to see the school beforehand or obtain detailed information about the program were adamantly refused.

We could only apply through the state lottery for Chris, but we could try both the state and city lotteries for Jake. And if we marked the "gifted and talented" option on the city form (one of two for Campus West) and Jake tested well, his chances would be further improved since the classes were to be balanced with a certain percentage of students from that category.

The open house was held at night; but we didn't get to see the classrooms or the teachers. When the lottery was held in March and the results were posted in the lobby weeks later, they turned out to be waiting lists for spaces that would not be determined until June or July. Chris had drawn No. 7, Jake was 29th on the state list and 61st on the city's. We never heard from Campus West again.

Hoping to put Jake in the best possible position if he did attend School 64, we entered the lottery for its gifted and talented program. An additional application was required. (It's a good thing, too. School 64 told us that the magnet office had no record of the lottery application I had brought in myself. We reapplied.) It included 30 statements about the pupil to be rated and two essay questions.

We made an appointment for the school to conduct psychological tests despite misgivings about the appropriateness of such testing for young children. In April we learned that his results were average.

Our third option -- and our ultimate choice -- was the Montessori program at Bennett Park. The Montessori philosophy called for teachers to act less as authority figures and more as facilitators, helping children become agents in their own learning. Classes combined different ages, and our boys would be together. The lessons were developmentally oriented. Children were allowed to work at their own pace, individually or with the teacher or aide.

The atmosphere of the school suggested a concern for ecology, health and settling conflicts peacefully. The fact that the teachers had to undergo Montessori training on top of state certification indicated a deep commitment. Teachers of the youngest pupils were casually dressed, looking ready to be actively and fully involved with the children.

The magnet office conducts the lottery by randomly picking applications from a box. The resulting class lists must be racially balanced and approved by the court, which still monitors the desegregation process. Unsuccessful applicants are placed on a waiting list that remains active until the end of the school year, although Morton has an informal cutoff date of Easter for making placements.

The losing parents sometimes call, "pleading and crying," says Morton.

"Extenuating circumstances might warrant a child being placed," she says. "Helping a child can be helping a whole family."

Notices to the lottery winners were due in the mail the first week in May, when, as luck would have it, our family had planned a trip to Washington. Disappointment over not being in town for the long-awaited results turned to panic when we learned that if a child got into more than one school, a choice would have to be made quickly.

At this point, the magnet office was giving us conflicting information about Campus West's procedures, and we thought we still had a chance of getting in. No one would say exactly when the results would be ready, or how long we had to respond.

And so I found myself placing a call to the magnet office from a pay phone in Gettysburg, Pa. The news was mixed. Chris had gotten into Bennett Park, but not Jake. He had been placed on a waiting list with sibling preference. There he might stay until September when the returning 5-year-olds were counted.

I didn't think I could survive anymore suspense. I also wanted Jake to feel settled about school and to take advantage of the school visit and family picnic that Bennett Park offered as spring orientation.

I called the school and the magnet office once a week for news. I wrote to the principal. In June, Jake got in. Perhaps a space became available after a family who had gotten into more than one school made its choice.

Like Raichilson, I was outside when I opened the notice. I picked Jake up and danced on the sidewalk. I hope by the time we have to select another school he'll be able to pick me up.