Five Steps to Surviving the Boston School Lottery

It’s school preview season in Boston, and you know what that means: Lots of stressed-out parents of 3- and 4-year-olds. To help soothe your pain, here’s a handy five-step guide the to process:

It’s a Lottery. As the name suggests, the whole process is a random lottery. Your outcome, with the notable exception of the influence of preferences (walk zone, sibling, and dual language), is utterly dependent on your lottery number. No amount of work, no number of tours, and no depth of analysis will change that. People who just write down the names of a few schools have as much chance as the dedicated few who visit every school in the zone.

Know the Number of Spots. If you need a spot, its imperative to be realistic about your chances and pick enough schools to a have a shot. Look at the demand report from previous years. But also take the role of sibling preference into account since many high-demand schools also have a pattern of lots of siblings, which means they’ll have fewer available spots, too.

School Tours Are a Snapshot. Touring a school is an impressionistic experience. You get a snapshot from a small group of parents and administrators at one point in a single day at the school. Tours can be valuable, but they shouldn’t be considered definitive.

I’m always intrigued by feedback I hear about tours. Like …

The principal is really nice. To the extent that niceness is correlated with strong academic leadership and creating a learning environment that suits your child, great. But, barring a serious behavioral issue, chances are you won’t be spending that much time with the principal.

The tour guide was not friendly. The naked truth is that high-demand schools don’t work that hard at tours — they’re just that, in high demand — with multiple applicants for each available seat, they don’t need to attract people.

Different people have different priorities, so take what you want from the tour, but I suggest taking it all with a grain of salt. And use the available data, like the demand report, sibling data, MCAS results, and the MSBA Needs Survey to supplement the impressions you get from your in-person visit.

Think Outside the Kindergarten Classroom. It’s tough to get beyond the immediate, but you are potentially making a choice for the next five to eight years. Ponder how your child will get to school — if its not within walking distance, are you comfortable using the bus or can you deal with pick-up and drop-off? And if you need before or after school care, is it readily available?

The Majority of People End Up Happy in Their Placement. Take some comfort in the fact that, within my limited social circle, everyone I know is happy with their (eventual) placement in the BPS. Some were wait-listed, some got in a second choice school in October, some were forced to make wrenching choices to separate siblings for a year, but they all survived. They all ended up in a school they are happy with. They made it. You can, too. Hang in there.