We Camped Out To Get Our Kids Into Magnet Schools and All We Got Was This Lousy Headache

Sure, a lot of dedicated parents are willing to sleep in the cold to get their children into a wildly popular CPS program. But plenty of equally dedicated parents can’t. Is this any way to run a public school enrollment system?
Basecamp at Sands Montessori, November 2014, Day 11.


Editor’s note: Jene Galvin began reporting this story last November. On August 10, just days after our September issue went to press, the Cincinnati Board of Education voted unanimously to suspend the current “first come” magnet school enrollment system for one year in favor of an online lottery system, effectively ending campouts for the immediate future. The board officially announced this change on August 24. Parents will now have a five-week window, beginning on October 24, 2015, to enter an online application into the lottery. Though the measure is technically a temporary solution, the CPS administration and board plan to have “a new magnet application policy,” created with “input from parents and the community,” in place by next year.

The wind wafted down a 40-yard row of tents hugged up tight against the oncoming evening chill. A few steps down the slope, in a grassy drainage, men and women crowded around a crackling fire in a steel pit. Most were wearing pricey expedition gear suited for temperatures dropping into the teens. Nearby, under an open-sided shelter, a pot of jambalaya was warming on a propane camp stove next to several empty pizza boxes.

You could see tedium etched on some faces. Others looked fresher, like they actually welcomed another night of stories, jokes, and revelry to ward off the chill. If an alien landed in their midst, he could be excused for thinking he was hanging out with adventurous humans preparing to conquer a Rocky Mountain peak, or at least the Appalachian Trail. In reality this incongruous scene was within shouting distance of the modern brick and glass entryway of Sands Montessori School on Corbly Street in Mt. Washington. The group bracing against the weather were rogue but highly organized contestants in a game that’s been happening for years, involving hyper-dedicated parents and their support teams hellbent on landing their kids in a school they think will matter for a lifetime.

The thing is, this game is stacked in favor of city residents with the ways, means, and time to wait in line, overnight and in the snow if they have to. Cincinnati Public Schools’ administrators and board members say they wish none of this was happening, but over the years they have been unwilling to set a policy that would end the campouts, perhaps for fear they would lose these parents and their tax money to the suburbs or private schools. CPS has been allotting the vast majority of the seats in their most prized magnet schools on a first-come, first-served basis, despite the fact that a lottery—a system supported and recommended by Superintendent Mary Ronan—would be more fair.

Most of the families who participate in the process defend it passionately. “It means that parents in that school have the dedication that you do,” said Casey Witherow, 34, who used vacation time to wait in line for 16 days to be the first to sign up his son at 12:01 a.m. on November 19 at Fairview-Clifton German Language School. “That’s a huge draw for top teaching talent who want to work in a school that has that [kind of] parent dedication.”

Of course, the parents didn’t create this situation. They’re just doing whatever it takes to get their kids into worthy schools—and if “whatever it takes” means spending cold nights camped on the ground in front of the school of their choice, so be it.

Like Reds Opening Day, the appearance of CPS’s modern-day Hoovervilles has become a perfunctory annual news story, only with less exuberant hoopla and more bemused head-scratching. What usually gets overlooked is the fact that the game is inequitable and occasionally messy. Consider, for example, that it’s unlikely a single mom or dad with two hourly jobs and no vacation or personal leave time has the car, outdoor gear, and/or network of supporters to participate, much less win. What’s more, some of the behavior in the temporary camps, whose numbers have been known to grow to more than 50, can be troublesome given it’s all staged on elementary school property. Several campers at Fairview-Clifton told me that CPS security staffers showed up one day last year and informed them that anyone found with alcohol would be removed from the lineup. This was after students apparently saw bottles at the campsite and their parents reported it to school personnel.

That was surely a bummer for those parents stuck out in the cold, but the discomfort can take various forms. At 3 a.m. on the night I camped amongst the Fairview-Clifton hopefuls, I was awakened by a rowdy argument between one parent and her companion, who was ticked off that she was still talking to someone by the campfire instead of joining him in her car parked in the school driveway.

“I just want to be with you!” he kept yelling way too loud for the hour and the thinness of our tent walls.

“I’ll be there, I’m just enjoying the fire,” she called back.

“If you don’t come now, I’m leaving in the car!”

“You’re not leaving in that car. That’s my car!” she shot back.

These nagging hitches, not to mention some hard data, have forced the most recently elected school board to change the process one more time. But with space at a premium and a history of dithering on a solution, can the district’s leadership finally nail an enrollment approach that satisfies most of its stakeholders, dials down the media attention, yet maintains the original vision for a magnet school system that is the envy of many districts around the country? The feeling is they need to, or this spectacle will continue to come to town as regularly as Cirque du Soleil.

The seeds for the campouts were planted in 1972 when a silver-tongued innovator from Dallas, Texas, was hired as superintendent by a new liberal school board anxious to integrate the schools without forced bussing. Donald Waldrip was bright and visionary, and within a year he opened several new schools that drew black and white families voluntarily under the same roof. His idea was that the magnetic forces of good schooling, a safe environment, and a unique theme would make people forget racial differences and their neighborhood schools.

The first ones to open were the elementary level School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA); Fairview German Bilingual elementary school; Sands Montessori school; and City-Wide Learning Community, which was a “high school without walls” that I helped develop and ran for years. SCPA selected kids by audition, so they were able to manage their numbers by matching available seats with the most talented. The other magnet schools, being new, had enough seats for all the kids who applied, so there were no enrollment controversies early on. But Waldrip’s idea worked almost too well. Today CPS has 21 elementary-level magnet programs and schools serving over 9,000 of the district’s 33,000 students.

To try to measure the power of the magnet forces Waldrip unleashed on district parents 42 years later, I decided to pitch my tent in their sign-up camps for a few days. So last November I pulled my minus-5 degree down sleeping bag off the shelf, along with my ultralight solo backpacking tent, and went off to bivouac a night each at Fairview-Clifton and Sands. Before I was done, I spent another 20 hours or so just standing around their campfires, watching the campers’ lines grow and talking with them about the ritual. Talking is the one thing that never seemed to stop. There are no day hikes, canyon vistas, or fly fishing excursions to pass the time. It’s mostly just conversation, punctuated by meals—some brought in by kindly restaurant donors, and at Sands, a few cooked by a camper whose day job is chef at a local casino—occasional games of cornhole, and fitful bouts of sleep until sign-up day arrives. Then, as fast as these parents came, they left, patches of smudged grass the only visible proof that they’d suffered for their kids. As Nathan Wingerberg, a parent camping at Sands told me, “This is like hell week in college.”

“The policy needs to be changed,” says Cincinnati Public School board member Elisa Hoffman. “I don’t think what we’re doing now is an equitable way to access our schools.”

Last year the camping began at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3, when Casey Witherow set up his camp chair on the grassy plateau overlooking Clifton Avenue in front of the Fairview-Clifton German Language School. Regan Kitzmiller, a mom from Hyde Park, showed up a half hour later after a friend who worked nearby called to tell her the first camper had arrived. Game on.

The game is rather simple: Show up and plop down a camp chair and tent on the property of a school you want your child to attend, which in this case generally means Fairview-Clifton, Sands, Dater Montessori, and North Avondale Montessori—four of the most coveted elementary magnet programs, where demand typically outstrips space. If you’re the first, as Witherow was, you’re not only guaranteed the enrollment of your child, but also get to lead a few other early arrivers in deciding and printing up the rules of the camp. Such as: How many hours a day a camper can leave the property for a break; where on school grounds campers will be required to sleep at night; and what time each day to call roll. You also establish and maintain the lineup binder, which documents the exact time and date each camper arrived after you. The school will view you as a de facto mayor of the growing temporary community. “Being first actually sucks,” Witherow told me, since it takes so much work and puts the leader on the spot if the group dynamic breaks down.

The line-up rules that Witherow, Kitzmiller, and a few other early arrivers established required at least one person to stay on site from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. every day until November 19, the day the CPS magnet program opened the list to sign up applicants for the following school year. A few rules got liberalized as more people appeared and exerted their reason and democratic power, but the guidelines were straightforward: During the day, campers were allowed to have stand-ins come in to cover for them and maintain their place in line, with a smattering of break times allocated. They established that tents had to be broken down during school hours—a rule that was not in effect at Sands Montessori—and also stipulated when and under what conditions campers were allowed to retreat to their cars, e.g. significant precipitation or the temperature dipping below freezing. In the final week of the campout, when frigid, snowy weather blew in, school officials at Fairview-Clifton and Dater allowed campers to sleep inside the building. At Sands, a friendly church across the street invited them to sleep on its floor.

Although Fairview-Clifton’s campout had begun 16 days out, Sands, Dater, and North Avondale remained quiet, indicating that prospective families had their own spotters, a realistic assessment of how many seats would be available at those schools  come fall 2015, and a sense of when the serious competition needed to start. Which apparently wasn’t until the morning of Saturday, November 8, when Joe Busterna pitched his tent right next to the driveway entrance at Sands. Ten minutes later another parent appeared, and a half hour later one more. When I got there in the afternoon, roughly 10 tents already lined the school yard along Corbly Street.

Dater Montessori’s line-up started five days later when Denianne Gardner appeared at noon on November 13; four hours later, there were 11 parents in line. “By the end, I had given out 52 numbers,” she said. She soon started their Facebook page from the campsite—dubbed Dater Waiters—with the aim of helping future campers understand the process and make their own sensible rules. (North Avondale only had a few campers on the final day, according to Christine Wolff, a district spokeswoman.)

The most interesting part of the campout process is the guessing, since all of this goes in motion nearly a year before the parents actually walk their children through the front door on the first day of school. Cincinnati Public Schools officials can tell how many open spaces to anticipate in the next year by grade level, but due to transfers and withdrawals more could actually be available. So parents have to judge whether they need to jump in line days, even weeks, ahead of time. Ultimately they might find they could have camped out for less time, or perhaps avoided it altogether.

“We probably didn’t need to camp out other than for 24 hours,” said Gardner, after seeing the numbers play out this summer. Nevertheless, she spent six days in front of Dater. At Sands, just hours before they opened the doors for enrollment, there were still 9 more spaces available for kindergarten than the number in line. Clearly overnight camping at that school for that category was superfluous. Over at Fairview-Clifton, where there were more campers than spaces, they had another problem. School workers opened the doors near midnight, mistook the number of available spaces and over-enrolled by 17 in the kindergarten category, an internal error they say they will correct and absorb by honoring the enrollments.

But with guessing built-in to the process, parents feel they can never be sure spaces will remain. Many I talked to sounded like they didn’t even care. “I’d definitely do it all over again,” said Brandon Hagedorn, a 38-year-old father from Price Hill who arrived at Dater at 4 p.m. on the first day and spent time on-site nearly every hour until applications opened at midnight on November 19. Having set aside a week of vacation to assure entrance of his pre-K son, he slept in his tent every night, including a near-zero evening when the school offered up its gym floor to the frigid campers. “I’m a stand-alone kind of guy, and this got me out of my comfort zone,” Hagedorn said. Others echoed the view that the campouts prove an invaluable commitment to the school. And some just liked the party. “I’m having a blast,” said Jeremy Singer, as we stood by the fire at Sands one evening.

Over time, school officials have struggled to balance the interests of parents who can camp with those who can’t. You can secure a space in one of these cherished magnet schools in three ways: First, the available spots go to siblings of children already enrolled in the school, if the parents choose to grab them. After that early application period, if you are a student from one of the district’s six lowest performing schools—determined by the state’s report card—you can win a spot from a random lottery (held last year on November 1). Those seats make up 30 percent of existing space in a popular school. Once the lottery seats are assigned, the remaining spots, about 70 percent, go to those who sign up.

Gina Wallace, another parent who I got talking to by the fire at Sands, sympathized with the parents who couldn’t do what she did. “They should go from 30 percent for the lottery to 50 percent to make it more fair, with everyone being eligible for it,” she said. It’s a strong argument, particularly since the school district’s own website states that over 70 percent of its students come from economically disadvantaged households.

The district has tried various enrollment approaches for their magnets over the years but has always gotten pushback when they’ve strayed from the line-ups, wherever they’ve been held and whatever rules were employed. In the 1980s school officials directed all applicant parents to its central office, then located on Ninth and Sycamore Streets downtown. Parents sat in lawn chairs, some overnight, on the cement sidewalk, like kids at a rock concert queuing up for scarce tickets.

Then in the 1990s, the district stopped the overnight lineups by keeping the sign-up locations a secret until making a 7 a.m. announcement to the media on the last Saturday in January. These “Super Saturdays” injected an unforeseen level of danger into the game as families—working in teams, sometimes with cell phones—blasted through dark streets and across crowded parking lots, fighting to be among the first through the doors to fill out an application. The process lasted several years before district officials concluded someone might get hurt in the mad dash for preferred seats.

But as the school board flirted with a lottery alternative even back then, magnet school parents came to board meetings and argued it would rob them of control, a theme I heard a lot around the campfires. Throughout the new millennium, a flurry of committees have studied the problem: a parent-initiated one in 2008 calling itself the Parent Review Committee that never reached a conclusion on an enrollment system; another by the Council of the Great City Schools that recommended a full lottery; and then the biggest one, conducted by Xavier University’s Community Building Institute, which ran surveys and focus groups with 70 stakeholders before recommending a lottery that required participants to first tour a school before being allowed to enter their child’s name.

In February 2011, the CPS administration rejected the tour requirement and recommended a full lottery for schools where interest exceeded space. But after resistance from pro-campout parents, the CPS school board backed off the administration’s recommendation and adopted a hybrid solution allowing campouts but mixing in the lottery for a few kindergartners with the simple requirement of living in an area that has a documented low-performing school.

Allocating most of the scarce spaces to those who have the means to camp and only 30 percent to those who may be unable to raises a question about whom CPS values more. But for at least one person, the inequality stoked an unforeseen business opportunity. Denianne Gardner told me about a woman in her line who claimed she was being paid $250 a day to hold a spot for the child of another parent, something she said she’d done the year before at Fairview-Clifton. Entrepreneurial? Sure. Fair? No way. Her services would be out of reach for an economically disadvantaged family.

All of this gnaws at Elisa Hoffman, a stay-at-home mom who was elected to the CPS school board in 2013. Hoffman, who has some teaching experience via Teach for America, has been spearheading another look at the process for the district. In my conversations with her earlier this year, she made it clear she didn’t speak for the entire board, but she was frank. “The policy needs to be changed,” she told me. She also challenged the premise voiced by many dedicated campers that sleeping out for nights on end proves parental dedication. “What does parental involvement look like?” she asked. “The data says there’s no difference between people of various [income] levels.”

When I initially asked why the school district doesn’t simply hold a full lottery for scarce spaces, she didn’t seem ready to go there. “I don’t think what we’re doing now is an equitable way to access our schools,” Hoffman said, “but I don’t know yet that a lottery is.”

Several weeks after our initial conversation, Hoffman contacted me with some new information gathered by the CPS administration. “When you dig into this data, you have to conclude this system”—in which 70 percent of seats go to those who sign up, whether they camped out or not—“has advantaged some groups over others,” she said. Ever since a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned school districts from allotting magnet seats based on race, she noted, two of CPS’s most popular magnets had skewed decidedly white. In the 2013–’14 school year, Fairview-Clifton had become 65.8 percent white and 21.4 percent African-American, while Sands was 70.6 percent white and 15.5 percent African-American.

What an odd twist: The same magnet school system that was originally created to desegregate Cincinnati Public Schools was, in certain cases, re-segregating them. Interestingly, the new data also showed that the limited lottery currently in place brought more racial balance; of the 50 students accepted from six low-performing schools, 43 percent were white and 41 percent were African-American. I pressed Hoffman again on a lottery as an alternative. “The more I’ve studied this, I think it’s our only other option,” she said.

I spoke to Hoffman just as the 2014–’15 school year was ending. At the time she said the CPS board had plans to dig into the data and study why people camp out for seats at certain Montessori schools but don’t camp out (and leave seats open) at others, like Parker Woods Montessori in Northside. Hoffman thought what they’d find would be more nuanced, that families don’t necessarily make judgments solely based on a school’s state rating. But she also said the district might need to communicate more effectively with its parents about the strengths of other schools—some magnets, some not—that could meet their kids’ needs.

I had heard a number of parents volunteer another idea: the district could end the campouts by simply enlarging popular schools so seat space matched interest. But Hoffman said best practices indicate that expansion and enlargement do not automatically guarantee new, improved schools. “Sands Montessori, for example, wouldn’t necessarily operate at the same level of quality if it was double its size,” she said.

Hoffman added that the board sees the magnet school sign-up process as complex, and whatever they do to adjust it, the change needs to be comprehensive. “We’re looking at the current process in three buckets,” she said. “Capacity, the policy itself, and how to get information out to parents about their choices.”

When I contacted Eve Bolton, a seasoned board member who has served nearly a decade, she had a different view of both the motivations and needs of many CPS parents. “I’m not sure there is data that supports the belief that the demographic group [from] which the 30 percent may come want to attend the schools where camping out occurs,” she told me via e-mail, indicating they have any number of choices. “It’s presumptuous to assume that. Out-of-district students attend over 40 of our 56 schools. All of our 15 high schools of choice are at or near capacity.”

Not everyone I met at the campouts was a happy camper. One even spun a dark media theory about why parents were made to suffer cold and drudgery just to get their kids in a school. “The school district does this on purpose to highlight this school,” said Gerard Sychay, as we stood by the fire in the Fairview-Clifton schoolyard.

But both Bolton and Hoffman said that persistent news accounts of the campouts were not a district public relations strategy. “I think it’s a negative news story,” said Bolton. “It gets too much attention for the wrong reasons.” Hoffman put it even more bluntly. “I think the news stories are embarrassing,” she said. “Your readers probably don’t know that it’s the first person who puts down a chair that starts it all, not the Cincinnati Public Schools.”

At this point, it seems as if our magnet school sign-up process has been studied and discussed more than Donald Trump’s immigration speeches. Around the country other districts have come to a consensus. “Generally, most school districts use a lottery when they have more applicants than seats,” said John Laughner, Legislative and Communications Manager for Magnet Schools for America, a national advocacy and support group for schools of choice.

So what’s the fix in Cincinnati? Increase seat space of popular magnet schools? In some ways it seems so logical—and the district is actually looking at that. “Recently the board directed the administration to explore the expansion of magnet schools where demand exceeds capacity,” said Janet Walsh, CPS director of public affairs. Currently, among the district’s four Montessori elementary schools, two are overflowing yet one—Parker Woods—regularly opens with a number of empty seats.

On August 5, the CPS board met to debate the magnet school enrollment process once more. All seven members agreed that the campouts had to end, and four alternate options were presented: a straight lottery, where all applicants are considered nearly equally (siblings, for example, might have a slight advantage); a weighted lottery, taking socioeconomic issues into account to balance potential enrollees; a percentage set-aside, which is essentially what the district does now; and a first-come, first-served online/snail mail process. (According to Elisa Hoffman, the board actively discussed instituting a lottery, and discounted the latter two options.) Ultimately, they adjourned with the intention of holding an official vote on August 10 (after this story had gone to press) to waive the current enrollment policy for this year—which would effectively remove the need for campouts—and work on  formulating a new policy before November.

One thing seems certain after all these years of enrollment wars: Whatever is decided, not everyone will be pleased. Perhaps the district should go bold and test the threat they’ve feared for years: Take away the camping that some parents demand as their guarantee of control and see if those families leave the district altogether. Maybe it’s time to test a pilot policy, even if it’s for a three-year period, that any child, regardless of the parents’ income and where they live in the district, gets an equal shot at attending a magnet school through a fair and scientific lottery. In short, maybe it’s time for all Cincinnati public school families’ interests to be seen as equal in the eyes of the school board. At the very least, a lottery could save precious vacation time for a handful of parents, and a lot of grass in front of the schools.

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