The Martin Luther King Jr. School offers a popular Chinese-language immersion program. (Photo: Cambridge Public Schools)

Groundwork for a look at the kindergarten lottery system was laid last week by the School Committee, noting demographic changes in the city and growing interest in language immersion programs. The last review was in 2013.

As complicated as Cambridge’s School Choice policy is for families and administration, it’s even more so when it comes to the three language immersion programs.

The lottery system that allocates school assignments based on available seats, ranked choices and socioeconomic balance gives 85 percent of families one of their three choices; additional students can move off of the waiting lists by the start of the school year. Others are assigned mandatorily.

At the Spanish Amigos, Portuguese Olá and Chinese King immersion programs, the schools must balance language proficiency as well as socioeconomic levels, because the schools want a mix of native and non-native speakers. Unlike other schools, the three programs can never be mandatory assignments – it’s deemed unfair to dictate that a family enter a bilingual program, which may keep enrollment lower than other schools. And while all Cambridge elementary schools have attrition, it’s difficult to start a student in a bilingual program after the first couple of years of school, unless someone enters with already near-bilingual skills. Yet they still have waitlists for the early years.

In response to recent kindergarten lottery rules that created unforeseen problems for some children at the Martin Luther King Jr. School’s Chinese immersion program, committee members Manikka Bowman, Fred Fantini and Patty Nolan filed a motion to “explore solutions … recognizing the importance of family togetherness and prioritizing siblings.” The recent rule allowed for students in the school’s Chinese language exposure program, Ni Hao, to transfer into the immersion program before the lottery is run. As a result, this year’s lottery had only nine open kindergarten seats, shutting many out – including, notably, a sibling of a student already in the program. Two other non-kindergarten siblings were also shut out.

An additional problem was that the vast majority of internal transfers from Ni Hao to immersion were paid-lunch, meaning only three paid-lunch seats were available through the kindergarten lottery.

The motion for a review was passed unanimously, but not before a discussion with Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney, who oversees the lottery, all but guaranteed that any solutions found will not help families waiting to get into kindergarten next year. The committee and Maloney may change policy for future lotteries, but they have learned the hard way not to tamper with waitlists. Changing the rules after the lottery has been run is opening a can of worms, Maloney has said many times, and “a game of whack-a-mole,” as he warned Tuesday. Five years ago there was confusion and bitterness over the Amigos’ schools waitlist when an apparent unfairness was altered after the lottery, only to create another wave of problems.

Despite this, some committee members seemed to hope the review could find a solution for current families. “We have a limited issue regarding siblings on the waitlist. I think there’s a quick solution to that. I want to resolve the immediate problem before us and leave the bigger issues to later,” Fantini said. He offered a substitute motion asking the superintendent to bring back a recommendation “to resolve the issue,” but no one seconded it.

Member Richard Harding said he could agree with an attempt to resolve the immediate issue if that was the will of the committee, but worried if it went that route it “becomes the precedent, and then you have uncontrolled choice.” He advocated at least beginning a look at the various lottery issues that keep coming up, especially surrounding waitlists and sibling placement.

Maloney also noted that the issue had been brought to to the King school council two years ago, finding no consensus about how to handle internal transfers and a “reluctance to change the rules.” This motion, he said, is a first step to examine the broader issue, and suggested that there are other voices that will need to be heard before rules change – such as Ni Hao families hoping to transfer. He urged the fact-finding to begin, noting that immersion kindergarten classes are more than fully booked.

“I want to go on record that it is not our intention to separate families,” Bowman said. “I know the program is starting to become very popular. I would prefer to initiate this conversation now,” including, she said, by looking at the city’s demographic changes and the intensified interest in bilingual education.

Member Kathleen Kelly, who initially proposed putting off the discussion until after November’s election, announced that she was “persuaded by Mr. Maloney’s” advice to begin discussions and “get the facts,” and would support the motion. Fantini moved for a vote, which passed unanimously.

Other business

Passed 6-0 without comment were recommendations to approve first-reading changes to staff family and medical leave and leave of absence policies to align them with the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act; approval of contracts of $350,000 for Apple Computer hardware, $14.5 million to SP&R Transportation for special education transportation for the next three years, $450,000 split between two vendors for custodial supplies, $150,000 for advanced manufacturing teaching supplies for the Rindge School of Technical Arts and $72,000 for human resources computer software. Also passed were the acceptance of more than $3,000 in miscellaneous gifts and grants, and a housekeeping motion related to budget categories.

In addition, the committee passed a first reading of revisions to a wellness policy. Dexter asked to learn more before a second reading about the reported use of withholding recess as punishment, a practice prohibited by district policy but still used in some schools.

Finally, the committee ratified a contract with the Cambridge Education Association. Teachers have been working without a contract for the current school year. A new one-year contract covers this year retroactively, and a three-year contract goes out to June 2020.