Parents, Teachers Debate Fairness of Magnet School Lotteries in Stamford


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School administrators have proposed a policy for magnet school admissions that could put parents at odds with teachers.

But that may not be the case. 

The policy change would prioritize teachers over some residents in deciding whose children get coveted seats in the city’s magnet schools.

Now, teachers’ children are not listed in the Stamford Public Schools’ order of admission for magnet schools. The policy is that teachers who work in magnet schools may enroll their children as space is available.

District officials want to create a spot in the order of admission for students whose parents work as teachers or administrators at a magnet school. They would get priority just after students with siblings attending a magnet school, and students who live in the attendance area.

Officials say the change will help the district retain teachers during a nationwide shortage exacerbated by difficulties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parent Stephanie Edmonds, a critic of the school administration, doesn’t oppose the policy change. It just needs to be tweaked, Edmonds said.

“Teachers should be able to bring their kids to the school where they work, or have a place in the lottery that gives them priority. I want to support teacher retention,” said Edmonds, a former teacher at a public high school in the Bronx and a condominium owner in Stamford. “But I think the district should negotiate with teachers, figure out what should be a fair percentage of slots to prioritize for teachers; give them their own wait list or something like that. I think that’s fair.”

Stacey Smith, a special education teacher at Strawberry Hill, one of the city’s most sought-after magnet schools, said she taught for 14 years in Darien Public Schools, where teachers are not able to enroll their children where they work.

“The major reason I came to Stamford was to keep a work-life balance, and being able to bring my kids to school was a big part of that,” said Smith, a mother of two and Stamford resident. “Teachers often have meetings that go until late in the afternoon, so I would have to get child care between the time school gets out and 5 p.m. It’s very difficult to get child care for that time. A lot of teachers would not be able to put in the effort and hours to do the jobs as we currently do if we didn’t have our children in the same school.” 

A courteous practice

The district, as a professional courtesy, allows teachers at non-magnet schools to enroll their children, and magnet schools should be treated the same, Smith said.

“It’s not fair that teachers who teach at Stark School or Springdale School have the professional courtesy but if you get assigned to Strawberry Hill, you would not get it,” she said. “Stamford has had such an issue with retention that they created a position in Central Office for dealing with it. I think teachers would leave Stamford if they could not bring their children.”

The stated policy in Stamford has been that magnet-school teachers may enroll their children if space allows; all other teachers who live in Stamford may apply through the lottery; and teachers who do not work in a magnet school and do not live in Stamford may apply only to the three inter-district magnet schools that are open to students outside Stamford. 

But the policy has not been practiced. Superintendent Tamu Lucero told Board of Education members during their May 9 Policy Committee meeting that the district has been allowing teachers to bypass the lottery since before she arrived 10 years ago. If the district did not do that, “no teachers’ kids would ever get in,” Lucero said, because the residents’ waiting list is too long.

Smith said teachers are required to apply through the lottery and, if their child isn’t seated, they apply for professional courtesy.

Stamford’s seven magnet schools provide some of the best educational programs the city has to offer. Among them are three inter-district magnet schools – Strawberry Hill, Rogers International, and the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering – that were built partly with state funding, so each must set aside 25 percent of seats for children who live in surrounding districts.

Lucero said the proposed change will align policy and practice.

The Greenwich approach

School board member Josh Esses said during the Policy Committee meeting that he thinks the district should not “be giving these seats away to non-Stamford residents when there is a lot of in-Stamford demand” for them. “Given … that the cost is borne by Stamford taxpayers, this is a fringe benefit to the tune of $20,000 a year,” Esses said, referencing the annual cost of educating a child in Stamford, which according to state Department of Education data is $21,454 per pupil.

Greenwich Public Schools handle it by charging tuition, Director of Communications Jonathan Supranowitz said Tuesday.

Board of Education employees – whether they live in the town or not – who want to enroll a child in a certain school, magnet or non-magnet, will be charged $3,613 for the school year that begins in September, according to the district’s website. Tuition is paid by a salary reduction of $164 per paycheck.

Non-school Town of Greenwich employees may enroll a child for $6,021 for the year, or a salary reduction of $274 per paycheck.

State data shows Greenwich spends $26,379 per pupil per year.

Greenwich has five magnet schools established for the same reasons as Stamford – to provide educational options by offering a range of distinct programs and instructional approaches; and to support racial, ethnic and economic diversity in all district schools.

Unlike Stamford, which has three inter-district magnet schools, Greenwich has none, Supranowitz said.

The aim of Greenwich Public Schools is clear, he said.

“Taxpayers are our priority. That’s why we’re here,” Supranowitz said. “We don’t give preferential treatment to staff members. We give preferential treatment to residents, first and foremost. If a teacher is a resident, and a lottery is needed because there are more applicants than openings in a school, the teacher gets thrown into the lottery.”

‘Behind the curtain’

It’s a straightforward policy, Edmonds said. 

“Being able to pay tuition makes a lot of sense,” she said.

Smith didn’t disagree.

“I would be willing to pay $3,000 in tuition if I had to,” Smith said. “But I live in Stamford, so my kids would go to Davenport if they didn’t go to Strawberry Hill. The city would be spending the ($21,454) per pupil for my kids anyway.”

Kathleen Steinberg, spokeswoman for Stamford Public Schools, said Tuesday that most of the 66 students placed by professional courtesy this year are at non-magnet schools. The largest number for a single school is 17 at magnet Strawberry Hill, followed by nine at non-magnet Northeast, and seven at Newfield, also non-magnet, according to district data. 

Though district officials now want to change the magnet school policy to include teachers’ children in the order of admission, granting professional courtesy does not violate regulations because Board of Education Policy 5117.2R Section G states, “Admission to all magnet schools is under the direction of the superintendent or his/her designee,” and Section G.4b further states that “Admissions will be limited to the approved number of available seats, unless exceptions are authorized by the superintendent,” Steinberg said.

But most parents think the lottery determines magnet school admission, Edmonds said.

“The policy says one thing but there is a whole other system behind the curtain that was used to take care of teachers, or elected officials, or who knows who, because there was no transparency,” Edmonds said.

She entered the lottery in 2021 to try to enroll her son in magnet Rogers International, but her number was something like 50 and her son didn’t get in, Edmonds said.

“It was definitely disappointing, but I can’t say I was distraught. I’m lucky because my son can do decently well in any school environment,” she said. “It would have been nice to get him into the school everybody wants to get into, and it goes from K-8 so it’s nice for continuity. Plus it offered more extensive programs before and after school, which I could have used at the time because I was working in the Bronx and driving back and forth. He ended up at (non-magnet) Stark School for kindergarten, and I liked Stark.”

‘No complicating factors’

Since she began working from home as a content provider, she is home-schooling her son, Edmonds said.

“My bigger problem with all of this is with the administration, which is not operating in transparency and is creating tensions between parents and teachers that shouldn’t be there,” she said. “It’s a system that has created ongoing problems.” 

Smith said she understands residents’ issues with teachers bypassing the lottery.

“It’s hard. I don’t know what to say about that,” Smith said. “But I also think the teachers are what make it a quality program, and if teachers can’t stay in positions because of the demands of child care, the programs won’t be as desirable.”

Stamford residents can apply to another school if they feel the one in their district doesn’t work for them, Smith said.

“I feel that’s similar, since it’s allowed for child-care reasons,” Smith said. “I agree we need a policy. We just need to take a lot into consideration.” 

Among the questions, one thing is for sure, Edmonds said.

“All of this is a great argument for school choice,” she said. “Everybody should have the opportunity to send their kids to the school that best meets their needs, with no complicating factors.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.