Getting in is luck of the draw in St. Margaret School lottery

Procedure lets 98 families have a shot at 20 openings

January 19, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Kevin and Elizabeth LaDana of Abingdon won the lottery Thursday night, but they didn't get the big bucks.

What the couple got is 11 years' peace of mind after their 2-year-old son became Lucky No. 14 in the drawing for the preschool class for 3-year-olds in the St. Margaret School lottery, an annual ritual that determines who will get into the popular parochial school that serves "pre-3" through eighth grade in the largest parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

St. Margaret School in Bel Air is one of two Roman Catholic elementary-middle schools in Harford, and with 5,000 parish families to serve, the school has a waiting list every year.

School opened in 1911

Principal Jane Dean said the school, which opened in 1911, moved to the lottery about five years ago to "level the playing field" for all the new families joining the church - and to stop the parents who were coming the day before registration to secure a spot in the "first-come, first-served" line.

This year, 98 families had their children's names in the drawing for 20 spots, 18 in the pre-3 class and two in the sixth grade. Dean said the pool was smaller this year than a few years ago when the school added classes for each grade and a middle school campus in Churchville. During those years, as many as 150 families sought a spot through the drawing.

The school has 855 pupils, about 30 to a class in first through eighth grade, Dean said. Next year, it expects about 900.

Meanwhile, St. Joan of Arc School in Aberdeen, which has 250 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade, has openings "in just about every grade," said Principal Jane Towery.

Ronald Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, said how schools handle the registration overflow is a local decision, and figures are not kept about which schools use lotteries, but "it's not unusual."

$50 lottery fee

At St. Margaret School, families pay a one-time $50 fee per family, not per child, to enter their children into the lottery. Valenti said such fees are common and necessary.

"You have to have some kind of commitment," he said. "Sometimes you have parents who put their children's names in at three, four, five different schools."

Once children make the cut, they are in through eighth grade - and so are their siblings. So for the LaDanas, who are expecting their second child, the gravity of the drawing becomes clearer.

"Yes!" Elizabeth LaDana exclaimed, when Dean drew Logan's name from the large glass fishbowl on a table in the school gymnasium. Then she sheepishly added, with a smile, "Sorry." A laugh rippled through group of about 45 parents and children, seated in neat rows of metal chairs opposite the fishbowl.

"I was so excited," she said afterward. "We've been stressed about this for months."

She added that she used to watch movies and roll her eyes about parents obsessed with getting their children into school from infancy. "It seems so hokey," she said, but "I was, like, `Kevin, that's us!'"

Now both children's educations are settled until high school. Kevin LaDana was planning to pop the cork on a bottle of champagne when they got home. Other excited parents were headed home to celebrate, too.

"I have to call the `fam' and tell them," said Christy Tamburello, whose daughter, Mya, was No. 2 in the pre-3 lottery.

Tamburello attended Catholic school growing up and wanted her daughter to also. Mya's cousin, Lauren Wenig, 5, bounced up and down in her seat happily when she heard Mya's name called.

But not all families were elated after the drawing.

Dean reassured them and told them not to get discouraged, but for Bill Jones of Abingdon, the outlook doesn't seem promising. His daughter, Brooke, was sixth on the waiting list for sixth grade. He said he has withdrawn his membership from St. Margaret Church and will move to a parish in Baltimore County.

"It's very tough," said Dottie Kowalewski of Abingdon, whose daughter, Jessica, was No. 4 on the waiting list for sixth grade. "Harford County needs more Catholic schools."

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