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Staff photo by DON HIMSEL

The Academy for Science and Design in Merrimack is shown Friday.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Merrimack charter school holds lottery for admission, parents hold their breath

MERRIMACK – Numbers pulled from a spinning bingo cage Saturday will determine the educational fate of dozens of local students.

Administrators at the Academy for Science and Design held the school’s student lottery over the weekend, but unlike other lottery games, the winners won’t be announced until this week.

Through the lottery process, students and parents seeking to attend the Merrimack charter school learned their place in the admissions order. But because school leaders are still searching for a new home, they don’t know how many new students will be accepted.

Administrators have been working to finalize a lease agreement on a new building. They plan to send out letters of acceptance by Thursday.

“We’re trying to be as open about this as we can, but there’s still a lot we don’t know,” said Kim Lavallee, a member of the school’s board of directors and chairwoman of the board’s admissions committee. “Hopefully, it will all be set this week.”

Currently, the school serves 285 students, grades 6-12, at its Daniel Webster Highway facility, across from Willow Lane. But if administrators secure the new facility, to be within 10 miles of the current building, they could increase enrollment by as many as 120 students next year, Thomas Frischknecht, chairman of the academy’s board, said last week.

More than 200 families applied for those spots, forcing the lottery in which numbers, representing each student, are drawn randomly from the bingo cage to determine the order of admission.

The school’s admissions process was flagged last year after officials wrongly blocked students from taking part in the lottery due to exam scores.

State regulations require that all applicants be included in the lottery and given a chance at admission, but 68 students were informed last year that they weren’t eligible because they didn’t meet scoring requirements on a math placement exam.

In the months since, school administrators have introduced a new admissions policy, headed by a new committee, and they offered guaranteed entrance to the affected students. So far, 35 have enrolled, leaving this year’s applicants vying for the remaining spots.

“They’ve worked hard to make the process fair,” said Kishore Bogalakuntla, of Merrimack, whose daughter is looking to join the school’s seventh grade class.

“The thing I’ve been most thankful for is how truly fair it is,” added Wendy Stough, of Nashua, who is looking to secure her son a spot in the sixth grade. “Everything they told us was true every step of the way.”

The one concern parents expressed is the scheduling of the lottery.

The mid-April selection date falls near the admissions deadline for other schools around the area. Academy administrators are planning to notify families by the end of this week, but with deadlines approaching, some may need to make their decisions by then.

“That’s my only complaint,” said one parent, who asked not to be identified.

“We’re stuck in a situation where we have to make a decision. That’s been frustrating.”

School administrators plan to move the lottery to an earlier date next year, said Lavallee, the admissions board member.

Until then, they are moving as quickly as they can to secure the new building and set the classes.

“It’s all coming together,” she said. “Soon, we’ll have a new building and we’ll have all these new students. …Knock on wood.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.