I Camped Outside For 16 Days To Enroll My Kid In A Good School
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I said goodbye to my wife and turned back to Big Agnes, the new yellow & red tent I had just erected on the lawn of Fairview-Clifton German Language School. It was dinnertime, but instead of eating a warm meal, I would eat from an hour-old fast food bag. And instead of sleeping in my warm bed, I would sleep in Big Agnes, outside, in front of an elementary school with 30 of my newest friends.
I was uncomfortable. Anxious. Unsure of what the morning would bring. Unsure of how to cover at work the next day. Unsure if our hastily-made child care plan for our three kids was the right one (my wife would leave the house by 6:15 AM to drive over to Grandma’s house in KY). And I had 16 more days to go.
I felt stunned. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “How did we get here?”
Magnet Schools In Cincinnati Public
In 1974, Cincinnati Public Schools opened the Fairview German Bilingual School. Fairview was one of several new magnet schools in the district, an effort to racially integrate the zoned neighborhood schools. Magnet schools were opening across the country in many large urban districts in the 70s. The idea was simple: open up enrollment to students from anywhere in the city, not just those who lived nearby, and attract them by offering a unique curriculum that focused on some academic feature. Magnet school programs encouraged families to voluntarily integrate, allowing districts to avoid mandatory busing.
Parents enlisted family and friends to patrol the city in cars so that the closest car could dash to the signup once revealed.
Originally, the core purpose of magnet schools was racial diversity. A funny thing happened over the years, however. These unique academic programs that focused on STEM, performing arts, or a foreign language worked too well. The schools started attracting more students than they had spots. Schools became more selective. Spots became more competitive. Magnet schools improved districts’ overall academics, and became top performers.
In Cincinnati, it became hard to get into Fairview German School. Very hard.
When there are more kids than spots in a popular school, how do you decide which kids get in?
CPS has tried to answer this question several times. In the 1990s, families enrolled in magnet programs via Super Saturday. CPS kept the enrollment locations (CPS schools) secret until the early morning on the last Saturday in January. After announcing the locations, lines formed quickly and schools accepted kids on a first-come, first-serve basis. Parents enlisted family and friends to patrol the city in cars so that the closest car could dash to the signup once revealed. Cars were manned in pairs, so that the passenger could get out and get in line without hunting for a parking spot. They communicated via pagers, walkie-talkies, and cellphones if they were lucky. There was more than a few fender benders in the process. Some families tried to guess the system, staking out schools for signs of “activity”, like building lights and cars.
Super Saturday ended sometime around 2000. For several years, parents enrolled their kids by taking a tour of the school and submitting a waiting list application up to 12 months before the first day of school. Your spot was not guaranteed however, and students were accepted partially on the basis of race and gender. Parents usually knew their result by December. Interestingly, this method was simple, straightforward and did not require waiting in line. However, due to demand from parents who wanted more control over their kids’ futures, as well as court decisions that outlawed the demographic basis of enrollment, CPS went to a first-come, first-serve enrollment around 2007. That first year, parents camped out in line for 24 hours.
We had two daily roll calls. Missing a roll call was a strike. Three strikes, and you’re back to the end of ‘The Line.’
To address the inherent unfairness in a totally first-come, first-serve enrollment method, CPS went to a hybrid system. Since 2011, 30 percent of open spots went to winners of a lottery system, with the rest still allocated via line. Families were eligible for the lottery only if their neighborhood school was underperforming.
The Line started on the Monday after Halloween around 7:30 AM. I was at home getting our kids out the door when my wife called about all the Facebook messages pouring in: Some asshole had started The Line. She literally had just pulled in at work, before pulling right out and heading to Fairview. She got in line around 8:30am. We were #8.
By noon, The Line was in the twenties. By dinnertime, nearly 50 families had signed up.
Everyone was anxiously awaiting the Rules. The Rules dictate what you have to do in order to keep your place in line. For example, we had two daily roll calls. Missing a roll call was a strike. Three strikes, and you’re back to the end of The Line.
Without the rules, we could not begin formation of plans for the next 16 days. Traditionally, the first person in line set the Rules. This year, the first five families were on the Rules Committee. Around 4 PM, they announced the rules.
Some numbers: After sibling enrollment, there were 71 available kindergarten spots; of those, 22 were designated as lottery spots. The theory was that lottery winners were likely to already be in line, so there would be no net loss of the 71 available spots after the lottery. If a family received a lottery spot and was not in line, then The Line for camping families just got one spot shorter.
On the second day, which was Election Day, the question circulated: “If there are only 50 families in line so far, and there are 71 open spots, then everyone gets a spot. If everyone gets a spot, then why the hell are we standing out here?”
The Rules Lobbying was on.
That afternoon, a special meeting convened to discuss alternatives to the rules. Ultimately, the following changes were made:
- Move morning roll call from 10AM to 6:30AM so people could get to work.
- Allow line-goers to sit in car (not on school property) during inclement weather.
- Expand break time to a total of 10 hours/day — UNTIL The Line is full.
Expanding break durations to 10 hours/day was huge. One could feasibly settle on a “normal” routine with 10 hours of break per day. So that’s what I did.
Every weekday morning, I awoke at 6:30 AM for roll call (roll call on weekends were 10 AM). Since I am not a morning person, waking up at 6:30 AM just to stand around outside in the dark would have driven me crazy. So I always left after roll-call, and usually went to work for 5 hours until 11:30 AM. Then I returned to The Line, picking up lunch on the way, and spent the rest of the afternoon in line. I worked a little. I read a little. I watched TV and shows on my phone as much as I could. I socialized with the other families when I was in the mood. We all kept the camp tidy since, really, there wasn’t much else to do. But mostly, I just sat in my chair, staring at the street traffic.
Around 5 PM, I went home to eat dinner, and tuck the kids in bed. I think I showered a couple times. Around 9 PM, I returned to The Line for evening roll-call.
On weeknights, I slept in my car. See, the real kick-in-the-pants with the campout line is that it’s not actually a campout. When you camp out, you make a temporary home for yourself. You set it up when you arrive, and you tear it down when you leave. In The Line, we had to take down our tents every weekday morning before students arrived. I heard that they didn’t want the little ones to question why a shanty-town had popped up in front of their school. With my car as a shelter option — a comfy one at that — I had no desire to tear down my tent every morning at 6:30 AM.
Sometime on the ninth day, with a week to go, The Line filled up. I believe there were still 50-some families in line at that point. (We were lucky. Nearly all the lottery spots went to families in line, so they all left The Line when they heard the good news.) With a full line, the break time went down to 5 hours per day.
With only 5 hours per day, I couldn’t both work in the mornings and see my family at night. I had to choose between them, and, understandably, I had to put time in at work. I was already pushing my luck with the incredible flexibility offered me at my small software company, and I am eternally grateful for those two weeks.
Post-rules change, instead of going home for dinner, I remained in line from noon onwards. Fairview Line alums often donated dinner, as did area businesses. My friends and family often delivered dinner during that last week as well. Thanks guys!
Every weekday morning, I awoke at 6:30 AM for roll call (roll call on weekends were 10 AM).
Will We Always Have The Line?
Earlier, I asked, “When there are more kids than spots in a popular school, how do you decide which kids get in?” But shouldn’t the question be, “Why are there so few quality kindergarten spots in the first place?”
The Fairview Line is such a fascinating issue because it invokes our most deeply held beliefs on class, race, urbanism, public education, and the role of government. A topic that is so complicated is a topic that is not easy to solve.
Of course, it would be fantastic to have a quality kindergarten spot for every child in the city. It would also be fantastic for someone to buy me a Tesla. The kindergarten issue, however, has a few more forces working against it.
The Ohio Supreme Court has declared the state public education funding formula to be unconstitutional and inequitable in multiple cases. This is no secret.
Furthermore, predicting future enrollment in a large, urban district is at best a guessing game. As CPS tries to maintain seats for its transient population, without wasting money on unneeded capacity, there will always be times when there are more kids than spots. Herein arises the chicken-and-egg problem: the more successful, stable, middle-class families live in the city, the better they can predict student populations. But attracting such families requires stable and accessible options for education.
Interestingly, CPS is not very much interested in ending The Line either. Why would they be?
How might the Fairview Line end? Or will it? Should it? There are lots of cities in the country that have lots of magnet schools. There are none with an enrollment line like Fairview’s that I could find. Every comparable situation the US has addressed the enrollment issue with essentially a 100-percent lottery system. Such a system would erase The Line, but, as the parents who object would say, it takes merit and choice away from parents.
Interestingly, CPS is not very much interested in ending The Line either. Why would they be? They have maintained a situation where a CPS elementary/middle school is of such quality that crazy parents like me will wait in line for 16 days in order to enroll their children. Not only is it a public relations wet dream, the families who enroll have self-selected into a community of dedicated, supportive, and likely neurotically perfectionist guardians. Free & reduced lunch no more.
Was It Worth It?
When our son was 3, I drove past the parents in the Fairview Line. It was cold and snow was on the ground. “What a f—king mess,” I thought to myself. “That won’t be us. We’ll find another way,” I said.
Living in the city has its costs. Houses are older, more expensive. And in return, you get to camp out for days to get your children into public school!
Like many families, we had four options.
1. Private school — Adding $5k, $10k, or up to $20k per year in tuition for three children to our growing list of monthly expenses when high-performing public schools were potentially available to us made this a tough choice.
2. Neighborhood school — At the time, our assigned neighborhood school was in Continuous Improvement, according to the state of Ohio. Grading schools is certainly imperfect, and ratings certainly do not reflect the quality of the faculty or staff. Nevertheless, academically, our school was not bad, but not good either. The majority of students received free & reduced lunch, and many shuffled in and out of the district. I’m a believer that school is what you make of it, but it was hard to make this choice when other options were available.
3. Leave the city — Leaving the city was always a tempting choice. Houses are newer, bigger, cheaper. High-performing schools are plentiful. There are some great areas in Greater Cincinnati. Why not just move to one of them?
Living in the city has its costs. Houses are older, more expensive. And in return, you get to camp out for days to get your children into public school!
Yet we are here. Moving to the suburbs was not an option. Simply put: that was not the life we wanted to build. We always saw ourselves living in the city of Cincinnati. Without families, cities will die, and I know that simply by raising our kids within the city, we are doing our share.
4. Magnet school — That left the public magnet schools. Unfortunately, that left waiting in line. It would have to be worth it.
I’m On A Boat
Tuesday, November the 18th, was our last day in line. Kindergarten enrollment started at midnight. The temperature was 18˚F. We had steadily cleaned up all day. At 4 PM, after school was out, we formed an actual standing line at the front of the building.
And we waited. And we stood.
The rumor was that they would let us into the building to wait around 6 PM. That never happened. So there we stood, on the pavement, for the campout’s remaining 8 hours. It was one last kick-in-the-gut.
A little after midnight, we were finally allowed to file into the cafeteria and sit down, while maintaining our place in line. After a short speech from the principal, they started calling out numbers, one by one, to enroll. We did not stick around to the end, but I heard that 60+ families signed up that night. With under 50 spots, at least 10 ended up on the waiting list.
Kindergarten enrollment started at midnight. The temperature was 18˚F.
There were some fundamental positives about The Line. Sitting outside around a campfire with a drink in hand is always enjoyable. The best part however — and it is a pretty good one—was the families! After all, I met the parents and their kids that will be my kids’ classmates for up to the next twelve years. Everyone in line was friendly and gracious. With so much time on our hands, we learned about each other’s backgrounds, careers, and kids. We compared notes on neighborhoods, how we ended up in the line, and answers to questions like, “Who watches your kids during summertime?” We are all permanent members of the Fairview Campout Line Alumni™, alongside earlier cohorts. When we pass each other on the sidewalk, we will glance at each other knowingly and nod our heads, not, I imagine, unlike veterans of the same battle, or drivers of T-tops.
I look forward to seeing them again in the fall.
To wax poetic for a moment, I feel like I’m piloting a big sailboat traveling the sea. My family is on the sailboat. I constantly scan the horizon for land, stormy weather, other boats, anything. When I see other boats, I have to determine if they’re friendly and sharing our journey, or if they’re pirates. When I see dark clouds, I try to steer around them, but due to the currents and winds, I’ve only got 50-percent control of our heading at any given moment. Sometimes, despite my efforts, I run right thru the storm. Sometimes, I catch just a little of the edge. Sometimes, I manage to avoid it altogether, and breathe a sigh of relief.
Sometimes, I spot what appears to be land in the distance, but it’s hard to be sure. If it’s land, I want to put in, so we can resupply and recharge. But it could just be a pile of rocks waiting to tear up our boat. There’s no way to know until we get closer and get a better look. So I cautiously steer what seems the best course, and try to prepare for anything.
Gerard Sychay is a software developer, partner, and 90-year-old house maintainer. He doesn’t run 5Ks, and I doesn’t homebrew.