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Thursday, August 25, 2011

State to keep eye on school lottery

MERRIMACK – State education officials will supervise an admissions lottery if one is necessary at the Academy for Science and Design next year, after the school acknowledged it wrongly barred dozens of students from a chance to attend the school this year.

Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry said she was satisfied with the school’s response to the situation, which was to guarantee admission for the 2012-13 school year to the 68 students who were told they weren’t eligible to attend the school this year because they didn’t score at least 70 percent on a math placement exam. Instead of denying admission, the school was required to allow those students into an admission lottery.

“The response from the academy is professionally ethical and morally responsible,” Barry said Wednesday.

Barry said there was clearly a “deep misunderstanding” of how the lottery process should have worked in the spring, when, for the first time, more students applied than there were spaces for. Instead of holding a random lottery to decide who got in, scores on a math placement test were used to determine which students were eligible to attend, according to e-mails provided by parents.

In a letter sent to affected parents Monday, the school wrote that a “glitch in the execution” of the lottery procedure led to families not being aware they had a right to enter the lottery regardless of their child’s score on the test.

Barry said she is satisfied going forward knowing the person who was supervising admissions last year, Mary Mattingly, is no longer in that position at the school. As part of the state’s response, Barry said the Department of Education would supervise the school’s lottery process next year if one is necessary. State law requires charter schools to hold a lottery when more students apply than there is space.

“As soon as we talk about the opportunity for school choice, the lottery becomes essential,” Barry said.

David Chauvette, director of the school, said he was unaware of any issues with the admission process because no parents ever called to complain, which he assumed meant it went as planned. Dealing with a lottery for the first time, the school sought guidance from the state and other charter schools, he said.

“The issue was one of execution,” Chauvette said.

Chauvette said he first became aware of an issue with the admissions process in June. Although it’s not intended to be used to block students, Chauvette said the placement test is a critical part of the admissions process because it lets parents and children know the rigor of the school’s curriculum.

“We have enough statistical evidence showing you have to initially be at a certain level to be successful here,” Chauvette said.

The charter school offers an advanced math, science and design curriculum to students in grades 6 through 12.

School officials said families with children who scored below 70 still should have been given the option to enter the lottery. E-mails provided by parents showed they were clearly told a score below 70 disqualified their children and they were encouraged to try again next year. This affected 46 sixth-graders and 22 seventh-graders.

Parents of affected students need to contact the school by Sept. 30 to guarantee they will be admitted next year without having to enter the lottery.

Chauvette said the school would have admitted the students this year to make up for the error, but there wasn’t enough space. The school, in rented office space on Daniel Webster Highway, is looking for a larger, 70,000-square-foot building for the 2012-13 school year, he said.

Charter schools are due for reauthorization every five years. The Academy for Science and Design opened in 2007, so Barry said the school should be up for its renewal this school year.

The state Board of Education has to approve charter school renewals.

The charter school had fallen behind in its required financial reporting to the state Department of Education, but Barry said the school is now caught up on all required reports.

There are 10 public charter schools operating in the state, though several more have been authorized and will open soon. Last year, the state received an $11.6 million federal grant, which will be used as seed money for up to 20 additional charter schools.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or