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Anser students buddy up to stroll through a nearby park. Photo courtesy of Anser Charter School.

Weighted Student Lottery Strengthens Idaho’s Charter School Pioneer

by Alan Gottlieb

As the 2021-22 school year began, Anser Charter School eighth-grader Sophia Acosta noticed something different about newly enrolled students: More of them looked like her.

Sophia, who is Latina, is in her second year at the K-8 charter school in Garden City. She had previously attended district-run public schools in Caldwell and West Ada where a significant portion of students were of color. When she started at Anser, she was in a more distinct minority.

“My mom and I talked about it and she explained that it can be harder for families of color to learn about charter schools and get involved (because of lack of access to information and restrictive work schedules),” Sophia said.

This year’s entering students are a more diverse bunch, thanks to a 2020 Idaho law, House Bill 512, that allows charter schools, who admit students by lottery, to weight those lotteries to give certain students better odds of admission. Some 21 percent of Anser students are non-white.

Anser is Idaho’s first charter school to use a weighted lottery for its admissions, which is significant because the school perennially has more families applying than there are seats available. Anser first opened its doors to students in 1999, and has been a pathbreaker ever since. More schools are likely to implement weighted lotteries in the years to come.

To be clear: The weighted lottery is not a quota, but rather provides additional chances for underserved students, underrepresented in some charters, to gain admittance.

Think of Anser’s lottery as working this way: Every student applying for admission gets his or her name on one slip of paper placed in a large bin. But students who are economically disadvantaged, are English language learners, are homeless, or are in foster care, get their names on four slips of paper. And students who fit into two or more of those categories get their names on six slips of paper.

A teacher reads with a student at Anser Charter School
A teacher reads with a student at Anser Charter School. Photo courtesy of Anser Charter School.

Giving students with challenges extra chances for admission amounts to “removing barriers for folks who have them,” said Heather Dennis, Anser’s organization director.

The biggest barrier for many families is simply lack of knowledge about charter schools and that they are open, free and available for all families. Families aren’t assigned to charter schools as they are to neighborhood public schools. This means families have to choose charter schools proactively, and people from less privileged communities frequently lack access to information about different schools and therefore default into their neighborhood school.

“Charter schools in general have a hard time (increasing student diversity) because there are  extra barriers for folks to attend. They have to know we exist. They have to know how to apply, rather than just walking up to your neighborhood school,” shared Dennis.

That’s why charter school leaders and advocates from the Idaho Charter School Network pushed hard for the 2020 law allowing weighted lotteries. Simply relying on families to learn about charter schools with different educational models tended to skew student bodies whiter and wealthier. Many charters, like Anser, see serving a diverse population as at the heart of their mission.

Anser is an EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) school. EL schools focus on in-depth projects, field work, and close collaboration among students. It is a distinctly different model than the traditional neighborhood school offers.

HB512 did not require schools to conduct weighted lotteries. It simply provides them the opportunity to do so, which previously was lacking. Twenty-six states allow weighted lotteries, and at least 11 do so through statute. Idaho’s bill is modeled after a weighted lottery law in Utah. “Getting the law passed may have seemed like a no-brainer, but it was a struggle to make happen,” said Idaho Charter School Network board chair Terry Ryan.

“​​Parents like a variety of models and missions to educate their students in a public school setting,” said Renita Thukral, a partner at Civil Rights Solutions, an educational consulting company, and an expert on charter school enrollment issues. “And having access to a school that uses a weighted lottery so that that school can achieve a mission that is appealing and attractive to the students and the students family is important, as long as the preferences are granted in a very narrow way.”

Thukral said that until recently, charter schools receiving federal grants were not allowed by the U.S. Department of Education to conduct weighted lotteries. That changed in 2014, when the department amended its regulations to allow lotteries to grant a slight preference to “educationally disadvantaged” students.

At Anser, the first weighted lottery, conducted last winter, yielded tangible, if small, increases in student body diversity. Just under one-quarter of newly enrolled students this year (24 percent) got in through a weighted application.

“​If you were to look at the prior year’s enrolled students versus this year’s enrolled students you would see a lot more economic and racial ethnic diversity among the students that were enrolled, particularly more economically disadvantaged students,” Dennis said.

Having a diverse student body and staff is essential to Anser’s mission, said Michelle Dunstan, Anser’s education director. “The reason why we have pursued this is that we see it as a moral obligation for us as educators and as a learning organization to provide this type of learning to all families,” Dunstan said.

A teacher collaborates with students at Anser Charter School
A teacher guides with students at Anser Charter School. Photo courtesy of Anser Charter School.

Anser will double in size over the next few years as another way of meeting that ‘moral obligation.’

More diversity among students is also helping Anser attract a more diverse faculty, Dennis said, and that benefits everyone, and especially students of color. “We’ve noticed, and parents and family have noticed with real happiness, that there are more students that look like their students. It just makes everyone feel more welcome,” Dennis said.

While Sophia Acosta recognizes and appreciates Anser’s growing diversity, she’s also happier at the charter school than she’s ever been in any other educational setting. One big reason is that teachers demonstrably care, and make a real effort to get to know the students, she said.

Sophia said she is shy and it can be hard for her to talk to other students. Teachers have helped her with that, and have brought her out of her shell.

That’s important, because as an EL school, Anser requires a good deal of collaborative group work. While that’s new to her, Sophia said she has come to enjoy it since enrolling at Anser.

“It’s just a lot easier to talk to and work with people here than any other school I’ve been to,” Sophie said.

Anser Charter School is a Bluum partner school and has received grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and from Idaho’s Communities of Excellence federal Charter Schools Program grant.

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