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Getting the Public School You Want

©1997 BY PUBLISHING 20/20


You've made your choice(s), followed procedures, sent in the forms on time. Now your child's fate is in the hands of others. This could be the personable, dynamic principal who won you over on a school tour-or an unknown staff member drawing from a lottery-or district staff considering the overall balance of demand and supply. Each district has its own methods for deciding the fate of annual OERs and transfer requests throughout the year. If you know who's making the decisions and what criteria they are using, you'll be ready to appeal an unacceptable school assignment, or denial of a transfer request. An interdistrict transfer needs the approval of both your residence district and your requested district, so you'll want to know who's deciding in both camps.

If you're not happy with your first assignment, bear in mind that it is not final. With so many parents making multiple choices, covering their bases, choosing and appealing, the process of final placement can take months. Know the decision makers, and you can enlist their help.

Here is an example of how a district might prioritize applicants after it places as many resident students as classroom limits allow in their assigned schools:

1) Students who had been displaced from their residence school by classroom limits

2) Students who wish to continue at their residence school, although they have moved to a different attendance area within the district

3) Siblings of enrollees at a school

4) Wait-listed students from the previous year

5) All other new intradistrict requests

6) All interdistrict requests, according to district priority (see the following section on interdistrict enrollment)

Lottery drawings are held for each priority group, and anyone still left out is ranked on the waiting list for their group. The district notifies all students of their status and the process takes a recess. Then principals tackle the waiting lists, and parents may have just one day to decide on an offered slot. Those who turn down an offered space are dropped from the list; those who can't be reached stay on the list, but students below them may take the offered space. Students placed in any other school forfeit their original residence status; to return to their residence school, they must apply as a new intradistrict request, in that priority group.

TIME'S UP! Be prepared to give your district a decision. With others waiting in line, you may have only hours to respond to an offer. Think through possible scenarios in advance (talk with your child, if she's old enough) and decide how you'd choose.

All this may make you feel anxious-but remember, lots of parents do get the school they want on the first try. And if you don't, check the strategies in "We Didn't Get the School We Wanted."


Congratulations! But before you celebrate, notify the school that you accept. You must do so by the deadline, or you could lose your child's place. If there's any chance that a place is being held for you at another school (whether public or private), let them know promptly. You'll get back some or all of any deposits or fees, and other parents will bless you for freeing up those spaces.

Check with your school to find out if there's anything else you need to provide, especially if your child's a kindergartner.


Waiting to find out your school assignment is nerve-wracking enough. But if there's one part of school choice that will try your patience and your sanity, it's learning that your wish was not granted, and then sticking it out through the whole process of calling, writing, negotiating, and more waiting to secure a spot at-well, if not your first choice, a decent school.

There are two rules to follow through all this. The first is: Be persistent. Keep calling, keep writing, stay on top of things. It takes weeks-sometimes months-for both schools and parents to sort out assignments and choices, and work through waiting lists and appeals.

The second rule is the golden one: remember how you'd want them to treat you, and do the same. Be clear, friendly, and reasonable. Be deserving of help, and appreciative when it's given. When you call, pay attention to the staffer's tone-know when to cut back from daily calls to once a week.

Here are some steps to take:

  • Visit your assigned school-that's right, the one you're sure you don't want your child to attend. Even if you already toured it. Give it a closer look, and ask yourself honestly whether it could work. Accepting your assigned school is always the easiest option. But if your honest answer is "No," stick to your guns and get to work on securing another choice.
  • Call the school you wanted. Let them know you're still interested, have them place you on a waiting list (if there is one), and try to get a sense of how many parents are declining assignments there, or also waiting in line.
  • Call the district placement office. Let them know you're rejecting your assignment, and discuss your reasons and your options. If they know of openings at other worthy schools you hadn't considered, follow up on them. Ask to schedule a meeting, if you agree it would be helpful.
  • Give written notice of whatever initial decision you make (even if it leaves you still without a school), following your district's guidelines and meeting their deadline.

There are effective and ineffective ways to let the district know you are dissatisfied with your assigned school and need a different one. The decision makers will be sifting through stacks of arguments, pleas, and threats. State your case calmly, and back it up with specifics. Real logistical concerns-such as medical care, day care, and transportation needs-carry more weight than badmouthing your assigned school. Address your child's proven educational strengths and weaknesses; demonstrate how your desired school better meets her needs. Include testimony from teachers.

If your district has an appeal form, draft your response on scratch paper before you fill it in. If there's no form, write a letter. And before you seal the envelope, have a friend or co-worker read your message for tone and content. Ask them to honestly point out anything that could work against you. (You're feeling emotional-your kid's future is at stake!) Take their suggestions gracefully, and rewrite until you're satisfied.

If you've scheduled a meeting with staff, mail the letter in advance, and bring a copy with you.


  • Elizabeth is a shy, quiet child who has had difficulties in first and second grades at her large K-8 school. We've discussed this with both her teachers, who recommended we enroll her at a small alternative K-5 school. They agree she would feel more secure and better able to focus on learning in this setting. This school also offers a strong arts program; this is the subject in which Elizabeth shows the most promise.
  • Our son's asthma requires prompt medical attention about three or four times each school year. We have applied to a middle school that's much closer to the plant where both my wife and I work, as well as the clinic where he receives treatment. Please place him on the waiting list for this school.
  • Our fourth-grade son has been "overflowed" away from our residence school due to overcrowding. Adam has recently made solid progress in both reading and math in his school's 4­6 grade "family" program, after difficulties in the early grades. We think it's very important that Adam continue with the same group and teachers. I enclose supporting letters from both teachers.


  • We have heard that there is no discipline at the neighborhood school where our son has been assigned. Our neighbor told us last year that some sixth-graders stayed out after recess and sprayed graffiti on the walls, and the school didn't do anything about it.
  • Our assigned school doesn't have a very good music program. We want our daughter to start playing an instrument, so we applied for a performing arts magnet school. Michele is bored at the assigned school and we think she would be more stimulated at an exciting school like the magnet. If she can't get in, we'll enroll her in a private school that gets its students into Juilliard.

Be sure to mention any priority factors that could have been overlooked: siblings at the school, day care arrangements, or employment with the school, district, or city.

If, in the first round of assignments, your kindergartner is not assigned to his older sibling's school, let placement staff know; this could have been overlooked. At the least, they might move him up on the waiting list.

Some districts only accept open enrollment applications for those schools that anticipate openings; others are considered "closed" and aren't even listed on the open enrollment form. If your district operates this way, it's worth calling after the round of assignments to see whether any "unlisted" schools fell short of projected enrollment, and actually have space.

Once you have appealed or been placed on a waiting list, keep in touch. Even after the school year ends, you can contact your district's placement office through the summer.


Consideration of your request depends upon the Ed Code section governing your transfer. If you're denied a transfer to your district of employment (under §48204), you may appeal if you believe your child was denied enrollment on the basis of race/ethnicity, sex, parental income, academic achievement, "or any other arbitrary consideration" (§48204.f.1). However, the district is not required to grant the request if the transfer would have a negative impact on mandated or voluntary desegregation, or if your child needs services that would cost more than the government funds that travel with her when she transfers. Contact both districts for guidance on appeals.

If your request is denied by two districts joining in a group agreement transfer (Ed Code §46600), some county offices of education will hear your appeal. Find out whether they offer written guidelines to help you prepare your appeal - explaining the appeal forms, procedures, and decision-making criteria; where to get forms; what response to expect; how to prepare for a hearing; who attends a hearing; and what happens there. Ask, too, about resources for legal advice.

Some county boards of education do not hold hearings to appeal transfer denials by Districts of Choice (Ed Code §48209). However, if you've communicated with both districts and are still not satisfied, you may send a written appeal to the board. The board may consider such appeals if you can credibly dispute a District of Choice's claim that the transfer would either: (1) negatively impact a district desegregation plan (whether court-ordered or voluntary), (2) disturb the district's racial and ethnic balance, or (3) exceed the board-established number of transferees.


If you tried to cover your bases by also applying to a private or parochial school, you know you have a backup-but holding onto this option grows more costly over time. (See sidebar earlier in "Applying.") Only you can balance the security of a fallback with the potential expense if a preferred public school does come through, and you lose part or all of your private school deposit. Private schools are well aware of the new public school choice options, and are developing stricter policies to deal with parents straddling the fence.


© Copyright 2003, Publishing 20/20. All rights reserved.