Abiding anxiety of school lottery

Cherry Hill's Nan Weinberg and her son, Cole, a fifth grader who is waiting for the results of a lottery last week on who would be randomly chosen to attend Rosa Middle School.
Cherry Hill's Nan Weinberg and her son, Cole, a fifth grader who is waiting for the results of a lottery last week on who would be randomly chosen to attend Rosa Middle School. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

In Cherry Hill, students attend one of two middle schools. Unless they try for the other option.

Posted: March 11, 2013

Nan Weinberg's son, a fifth grader at James Johnson Elementary School in Cherry Hill, had been convinced that he wanted to go to Beck Middle School next year.

" 'I don't even want to think about Rosa,' " Weinberg recalls her son, Cole, saying, dismissing his other option for middle school in the district.

After attending an open house at Rosa International Middle School, however, he changed his mind. "He just felt more comfortable there," Weinberg said.

He couldn't get too excited, though. Cole - along with fifth graders across the district - was waiting for the results of a lottery held last week to choose who could go to Rosa.

In Cherry Hill, students are assigned to either Beck or Carusi Middle School, depending on where they live.

To go to Rosa, students have to enter a lottery. There is no way to bolster an application - students are selected at random. No preference is awarded to students who have a sibling at Rosa, although the district permits twins to apply together.

The lottery has been in place since Rosa opened in 1999 as the district's third middle school. The district previously had a third school, Heritage Junior High, which closed years earlier.

Faced with rising enrollment in the 1990s, instead of redistricting, the district opened Rosa, making it a magnet school.

The only Cherry Hill middle school to offer the International Baccalaureate program, Rosa - and the process by which students are admitted - has stirred passions among parents. Some swear to the benefits of the IB program and what they describe as the school's nurturing environment.

"Once people got word of the teaching style and how the kids were doing things, everybody wanted to be a part of it," said Ilyse Friedman, whose younger son, Ari, is in eighth grade at Rosa and the older, Steven, attended the school and is now a senior at Cherry Hill High School East.

Learning that her sons were admitted to Rosa "was as if I opened the mailbox and got a college acceptance," Friedman said.

District officials emphasize that all three schools offer a quality education.

"Cherry Hill is fortunate to have three great middle schools," said spokeswoman Susan Bastnagel.

While Carusi and Beck parents speak with enthusiasm about their schools, some say a perception exists that Rosa is superior - possibly because of the lottery.

"People get really fixated on going to Rosa, and when they don't get in, they go crazy," said Jackie McCurdy, whose daughter, Maggie, is an eighth grader at Carusi.

"There is definitely a feeling like somehow that school is better," said McCurdy, who said she had heard parents talk about moving after not getting into Rosa. "I absolutely do not think that is true at all."

Competition for slots at the school - which is smaller than Beck and Carusi - varies each year, depending on the number of applications and class sizes, Bastnagel said. The district sets minimum enrollment goals for the Beck and Carusi areas, meaning separate lotteries may be held.

Waiting lists are not uncommon. Last year, 410 students applied for 250 spots at Rosa, Bastnagel said. At the time, the district had 879 fifth graders.

Bastnagel said she couldn't yet share numbers from this year's lottery. Letters were expected to go out Friday, raising anticipation among students wondering whether they would be placed on a waiting list or would face separation from friends.

Norma Roth remembers when her son Jeremy, now a senior at East, became distraught when he didn't get into Rosa.

"He was really devastated, like hysterical crying," said Roth, whose oldest child went to Rosa. "He was not going to go to school unless he could go to Rosa."

That all changed by the time he started sixth grade at Beck. "He had a great first day and said, 'Oh my God, I love Beck,' and forgot about Rosa,' " Roth said.

While Maggie McCurdy was accepted to Rosa, she chose to go to Carusi, her mother said, because it was closer to her elementary school, Clara Barton.

But even after making that decision, her daughter was excited to learn she had been accepted at Rosa.

"I think the lottery made it seem like, 'Oh my gosh, did you get picked?' " McCurdy said.

Before starting the lottery system, school officials studied the process used by magnet schools across the country, said Rosa principal Ed Canzanese.

"We knew there was going to be stress and anxiety," he said. "We made sure this was as clean and honest and fair a process as it could be."

While the lottery disappoints some, all three middle schools prepare students equally well for high school, Canzanese said.

"It's great that parents have choice," he said, "but there's not unlimited choice."

Contact Maddie Hanna

at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com.

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