The REAL Truth About Seattle Public Schools Kindergarten Assignments

by Chris MacGregor, Senior Software Engineer
February 22, 2007
(updated February 10, 2008)
(clarification added February 11, 2008 about order of processing having no effect)
(a couple more links, plus clarification added February 19, 2008 about forms submitted before vs. after the deadline)

Serious Problem With New Student Assignment Plan

Please see for my comments on what I see as a very serious problem with the new Student Assignment Plan.

Is This Up-To-Date?

Apparently this still somewhat applies to the 2010-2011 school year assignments. For up-to-date information, please see Elizabeth A. Walkup's page on How to Rank Schools for the Seattle Public Schools at

The following information was originally written in February 2007, for the 2007-2008 school year; however, it applies to the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school assignments as well.  Seattle Schools is planning a new assignment process for 2010-2011 and beyond, but the current assignment process is still in place for now through at least the end of the 2010 school year.  You should look at their enrollment page if you haven't already.

Is This Just For Kindergarten?

My focus in this process was on Kindergarten assignments, since I had a son starting Kindergarten in 2007.  However, the same system applies to grades K-12, so the information should apply to everyone.

What About Private Schools?

Sorry, this page only applies to Seattle Public Schools.  However, I will say that if you're interested in a private school for your Kindergarten-age kid, I am thoroughly convinced that
KapKa Cooperative School is absolutely the very best school ever!

Why Did You Bother Writing This?  Everyone Knows How It Works!

Everyone knows, but a lot of them are wrong, unfortunately.  As my wife & I navigated the process of choosing a kindergarten (and school) for our son, we became concerned when we kept getting conflicting information about the implications of listing various choices on the school selection form.  Even high-level employees (principals and vice-principals) of the Seattle Public Schools were giving out conflicting information, and obviously they couldn't all be right if they were saying different things.

Some folks will tell you that you should never list a "long shot" (a school you don't think you'll get into) as your first choice - they call it "throwing away your first choice", implying that there is a special magic about that first slot on the form. (It turns out this is not true.)  Others (not many) will tell you it doesn't matter.  Some people have told me some really crazy things that I won't even record here.  The basic problem is that it's a system designed to be fair, first and foremost.  It does a good job of that, in my opinion.  Unfortunately, it's not possible for it to be both fair and simple, so it is a complicated fair system, and the descriptions of it provided by the Seattle Public Schools are accurate, but don't clearly lay out the important implications of how it works.

Since we had some very definite opinions about which schools would work best, we wanted to do all we could to get him into those schools.  So...

What Did You Do?  Why Are You So Sure You Know Better Than My Principal/Friend/Neighbor/Whatever?

Although the Enrollment Guide seemed fairly clear, there were still a couple of possible interpretations, and there was all that conflicting information, and so in the end it became clear that there was one final solution: read the source code for the computer software program that actually processes the applications and makes the assignments, creates the wait lists, etc.  No matter what anyone says, in the end, the software itself is absolutely the most authoritative possible description of how the process works, because the software is what actually does it.  So in mid-February 2007, after about 3 weeks of negotiations with Seattle Schools to arrange it, I went down to the school district office and spent several hours going through the actual software which does the assignments.  Apparently I'm the first person who has ever asked to do that.  I greatly appreciate the assistance of Joy Stevens in making this happen, and also Fred L. for his time and effort in support of it.

So What's The "REAL Truth"?

I then spent several more hours reviewing my notes (I was only allowed to take written notes - no electronic media of any kind was permitted).  I've now completed my analysis, and I will state the following with conviction, with my reputation as a professional software engineer on the line:
  1. The description of the process starting in the third column on p. 36 of the 2008-2009 Enrollment Guide is accurate and relatively unambiguous, at least if you're used to thinking like a programmer.  I strongly recommend that you read the guide and try to understand it - it covers a lot of important information, almost none of which I cover here.  This page is all about one particular issue, and there is much more to the process.  Unfortunately, while the Enrollment Guide is accurate, it fails to call out some implications, which follow:

  2. There is no harm in listing long-shot schools. I can't emphasize that enough, because a lot of people (including some misinformed school district employees) will tell you exactly the opposite.  But really, if you list 6 schools that you have a less than 1% chance of getting into, and then school X, you have no less of a chance of getting into school X than if you listed school X first (unless of course you get into one of the long shots, which presumably would be what you want).  You (well, your child) could get into your 7th-choice school, bumping out someone who listed it as their first choice - this is pretty much guaranteed to happen, if you don't get into your 1st through 6th choices AND the tiebreakers (reference area, distance, lottery #, etc.) favor your kid over that other kid.

  3. There is NO SUCH THING as "throwing away your first choice". See # 2, above - this is another way of stating the same thing.

  4. Listing a school first (or second or whatever) does NOT give you any more of a chance of getting into that school than someone who lists it, say, 10th.  See # 2 - this is another way of putting it.

  5. Figuring out which school to select to be wait-listed for is trickier, because you can only pick one, but you (sort of) want to pick the one that you think you have the best chance of having a short enough wait list that you will actually get in.  I don't have any really good advice on this one. Sorry!

  6. It does not matter when you get your form in - as long as it's before the deadline (February 29, 2008)!  The order in which the forms are processed does not matter.  The kids are assigned a random "lottery" number for each school they listed.  If kid C is processed after kid B, but C (per the various criteria, siblings, cluster, distance, and if all else fails, lottery number) has a higher priority for a school to which B is already assigned, then B will get "bumped" out and C gets into that school.  Then, if that happens, kid B gets processed again, starting with the next school on their application, and may in turn bump out an kid A who is already assigned to that school, etc.  Allowing for that "bumping" process ensures that the order doesn't matter, because this way even if your application happens to be the very first one fed into the computer and the very first one that it looks at when doing the assignments, you could still wind up with your last choice (or not even that one), if other kids have higher priority per the specified criteria.  It's a well-designed, fair system.  Note that forms received after the deadline are processed separately, and basically only have a shot at whatever slots are left after all the forms received before the deadline are processed and all those kids are assigned to schools.  So don't be late!
I did not pay any special attention to what would happen with twins.  My expectation was that the sibling-link provision would typically ensure that once one of them was assigned to a school, then the other would most likely be assigned to the same school, unless the first one got the last spot at that school.  However, I know personally a family who wound up with twins assigned to two different schools for 2007-2008, and who found Seattle Schools very uninterested in sorting out the problem.  I have a couple of theories about what might have happened, but I'd need to have another look at the source code to confirm them.

Ugh, That's Still Too Long And Complicated - Give Me The Short Version!

Okay, But I Have A Question...

Questions? Doubts? Concerns? Send me a note via the Cybermato Consulting contact form (or email if you have my address - I don't want to put it here for spam-sending robots to slurp up), and I'll do what I can to help.

Who Are You, Anyway?

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