When Kathy and Glyn Polson started a life together 10 years ago, they imagined spending years in their South End row house and committed themselves to the city.
They made friends in the neighborhood, enjoyed short commutes to work, and started a family. Glyn became president of the local library association. Kathy joined a mothers group.
But recently, they have found themselves checking out open houses in Andover and North Reading and, in painful late-night discussions, reluctantly weighing something neither of them wants, a move to the suburbs.
The deciding factor is due to arrive soon in the mail, a letter from the Boston School Department letting them know whether their nearly 5-year-old daughter, Ayla, is slated for a seat in the nearby school their hearts are set on, or in one of two backup choices. If not, they will have to seek openings at other city schools that other families have already picked over, consider tuition payments to private schools, or leave the city.
“It’s like putting your life on hold until we get a form letter in the mail,” Glyn Polson said. “Given the randomness of the school assignment system, it has the unintended effect of driving families out of the city. No one really wants to leave the education of their kids to chance.”
It is a story that will repeat itself all over Boston in the days ahead, as thousands of parents wait with hope and dread for similar letters after spending six anxiety-filled months navigating the city’s school lottery system. It is a grueling annual rite that asks parents to list the schools they want for their children, schools that excel in science or the arts or that are generally strong, or schools in safe neighborhoods or near home. Then assignments are doled out based on a host of variables, including the most fickle: Luck.
The system is meant to give everyone a fair shot at a good public education. But in a city where too many lower-tiered schools are mixed in with the good ones, competition for the best is fierce. Last year, more than 600 of the 5,500 families trying to win slots did not get one of the schools they wanted most — and there is no reason to think it won’t work out that way this year, too. For some families, that will mean a choice between sticking it out in a city with wildly inconsistent schools or opting for a suburb where finding a good school seems less of a gamble.
Their choices will not only determine their own future paths, they will also have an inexorable impact on Boston, where the number of families with children is dropping. To look deeply into a process that has such a grip on Boston life, the Globe is following 13 families from across a spectrum of neighborhoods and backgrounds as they make their first important decisions about their children’s educations.
They have toured numerous schools and tussled with a sometimes bewildering bureaucracy. Some have submitted as many as 12 schools they would accept, others just three. Several said they have no choice but to stay, no matter what the lottery’s outcome. But some have already decided that if they get none of their choices, or one they are hesitant about, they will leave the city.
Residents who savor life in Boston but also have the means to leave if the city lets them down are just the kind that Mayor Thomas M. Menino once vowed to lure to Boston and keep here. Middle-class parents who tend to be involved in schools and civic life are seen as critical to both the health of the school system and the city’s ability to create vibrant, stable neighborhoods that attract businesses and boost the city’s tax base.
And yet they are leaving in alarming numbers. Though the School Department keeps no figures directly linking the departure of middle-class families to schools, a Globe analysis of School Department and US Census data reveals a city with a small and declining number of families with children and a school system increasingly abandoned by all but the poor.