Chief Jasaad Rogers of Roxbury, like his brother before him, had lousy luck in the Boston public schools lottery. Not only was the 4-year-old shut out of the schools his parents wanted; he did not win a prekindergarten seat in any school at all. His parents, who both work full time, were left with few options besides paying for him to go somewhere else.
In West Roxbury, Debra Brendemuehl hit the jackpot, though she did not necessarily need full-day schooling for her 4-year-old, Brendan. (“They’re not kids forever,’’ she reasoned.)
She entered the lottery because she knew the only way to get him into the neighborhood’s highly sought-after schools was to apply when he was 4. The strat egy worked: He won a spot at one of the city’s most competitive schools, the Lyndon in West Roxbury, which he can attend through eighth grade.
Two Boston children. Two drastically different outcomes. Chief was one of the 514 4-year-olds, about 23 percent of those who applied, who were denied entry to prekindergarten classes in the Boston public school system last month. Of the many complexities of the city’s school assignment system, it is this central inequity that can inflame the most passionate anger, that the city can pay for many but not all of its 4-year-olds to go to school.
Not only does it mean that some taxpayers receive a free education for their children a year earlier than others, but those who enroll at 4 claim many of the best kindergarten seats the next year, leaving lottery losers with little chance of getting into the city’s best schools. Like a bruising round of musical chairs, the system lets 4-year-olds who scrambled into the best seats crowd out the later arrivals.
“I cried all weekend,’’ said Danielle O’Brien of West Roxbury, who learned last month that her daughter was not assigned to a prekindergarten class. Her husband found her reaction a bit extreme, she admits. “He was like, ‘OK, you’re like acting like a crazy person.’ But this is our daughter’s life and this is our life, too. Because now we’ve got to pay $5,000 or $6,000 a year for 10 years. That’s a lot of money.’’
Children can enter the school system at age 4 or 5 through a lottery system designed to ensure that even those who live near the city’s underperforming schools have a chance to get into some of the most coveted classrooms.
While all 5-year-olds who apply win a seat, if not necessarily at the school of their choice, the 4-year-olds each spring must compete for a growing but limited number of openings. Policy makers have long argued that early education is the best time to invest in children to prevent later difficulties; gains are particularly significant for disadvantaged children. But who gets into the prekindergarten, or K-1, classes is based on luck, not need. Only now is the mayor focusing resources on expanding access in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“Who did they want to attend, and are they getting those people?’’ asked Courtney Barth, a Roslindale mother. “Are they achieving what they wanted to, or are they just allowing people who otherwise might be going into a private preschool program to get free preschool?’’