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If you plan to enroll your child in a new Buffalo public school next year, do it now. Head to the district’s Central Registration Office on Ash Street and submit your child’s application.

Seriously. Go now.

Even though we’re less than two months into the current school year, and online applications for 2014-15 were just posted to the district’s website Wednesday, your chances of getting your child into the most competitive district schools diminish with every week that passes.

“If you don’t come in early, you’re really screwed,” said Jackie Lahmer, a South Buffalo mother who learned that lesson the hard way last year. “It’s such a shame you have to come a year in advance or you’re not going to get anything good. You get what’s left over, even if it’s a bad school.”

The Buffalo school system is notorious for having one of the most cumbersome, least transparent and least parent-friendly student admissions processes in the region.

Last school year’s effort to move the district to an online registration process was so horrendous that despite spending $64,432 for a new registration software system, district leaders this year agreed to return to paper forms.

“The computerized system was a failure,” administrator Mark Frazier told the School Board earlier this month. “It was riddled with errors. It was user-unfriendly.”

Parents who made mistakes couldn’t go back and fix them, and many completed online applications simply vanished into cyberspace. That’s what happened to Lahmer, who was trying to register her son for prekindergarten last December.

Even though Lahmer did not receive an online confirmation at the time, she still figured she was in good shape.

That was until earlier this year, when she realized she still had not heard anything from the district. By the time she went to the Central Registration Office to register in person, it was too late to get her son Landon into any of her first three school choices: Discovery, Olmsted or Lorraine Academy.

“They said there was no way I could get him in for this year. The waiting lists were so long,” she said. “I was so angry.”

Without those options available, Lahmer decided to put Landon in a private pre-K program this year at a cost of $1,195. That hurt her family financially, she said.

This year, administrators say they have made some much-needed improvements to the admissions process and have pledged to do more to make the process as open and straightforward as possible.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be completely transparent in this district,” said Frazier, the district’s acting director of student placement. “There’s no reason why anything should be a mystery.”

Shut out of best schools

But some outstanding issues remain for parents trying to enroll their children in Buffalo schools.

First, even though the district’s deadline for next year’s enrollment applications is technically Dec. 6, anyone who waits that long will essentially be shut out of four of the district’s higher performing schools.

That’s because those schools – City Honors, Olmsted 64, Olmsted 156, Hutchinson-Central Technical High School and Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts – have admissions tests.

All but Visual and Performing Arts are among only 10 schools in good standing with the state, out of 55 schools to which parents can send their child next year.

If you were hoping to get your child enrolled in grades five through eight at City Honors, for instance, there’s a good chance you’ve already missed the first admissions testing date, which was Saturday. (There are makeup dates in November.)

While applications don’t have to be submitted prior to signing up a child for an admissions test, it’s best to have it ready.

Second, if you’re the parent of a child who will be 3, 4 or 5 next school year and you’re wondering when you’ll be notified by the school district about Montessori, prekindergarten or kindergarten placement options for your child, the answer is never.

Currently, the district makes it incumbent upon parents to realize they must sign their child up for school by Dec. 6 in order to be considered for the first wave of school placements and lotteries.

“We’re realizing now that outreach is essential,” Frazier said. “We can’t make the assumption that the parent knows.”

But the district doesn’t yet have that outreach process in place.

Ineligible for 1st round

Though the district still will accept any applications after the Dec. 6 deadline, those students will not be eligible for the first round of lottery placements and are more likely to be placed in schools that aren’t in good standing with the state.

Even when parents do apply on time, they are typically left in the dark about the district’s timetables on holding lotteries for competitive school seats and when to expect student placement notification. That’s a huge problem for parents who are also considering private schools that require nonrefundable deposits.

Take Erin Gorton, a mother in the Elmwood Village whose online application to place her son in kindergarten at Olmsted this school year was put into the wrong lottery pool. Instead of being on the neighborhood list, a computer glitch placed her son in a school Gorton had not applied for, she said. And she didn’t find out about it until this past July.

As a backup plan, she paid a 25 percent deposit for a seat in a private school where tuition costs thousands of dollars.

Her son was eventually placed at Olmsted this year, but Gorton did not get back her deposit from the private school because the Olmsted spot was not secured until days after the private school’s Aug. 1 deadline for refunds.

Still, Gorton said she was pleased “things worked out in the end” with Buffalo public schools, once she contacted “the right person.” But the process was “very frustrating.”

“It was disheartening, actually, in a lot of ways. It shouldn’t be this complicated,” she said. “It’s like Russian roulette trying to figure out what will happen in September.”

Timetable soon

Frazier said he plans to post timetable information within the next couple weeks and get parents information about final placement of students “as soon as humanly possible.”

Because of the district’s complex placement system, its broad array of programs and its heavy immigrant and special-education population, applications require parents to fill out two to three pages of forms per child. Each application, in turn, requires parents to refer to supplemental attachments and instructions.

Parents must list their top three to five choices by school number and three-letter program code. With 55 schools and nearly as many different program choices, many parents still find the application difficult to navigate.

Ashley Lotts, who was registering her 3-year-old and 5-year-old daughters on Friday morning, said she was “confused” about what some of the codes meant and made several mistakes on the application because of it. She scribbled over most of her original answers on that portion.

“It asked for a code, so I gave a code. I didn’t understand ... I thought they would explain it here,” she said referring to a section on the following page.

Lotts was able to get direction from a staffer.

Addressing complaints

Frazier, a longtime district administrator who just took over the Central Registration Office, isn’t oblivious to the complaints. He talks with parents and staff regularly about registration difficulties and has begun making changes.

Among them:

• The district no longer uses special tear-off, legal-sized paper applications, which required parents to make a special trip to Central Registration or a school to pick up a copy.

All applications are now printed on standard 8½-by-11 size paper, which can be downloaded from the district’s website, printed from any home computer and either mailed, faxed or hand-delivered to the registration office.

• When you call the registration office, a live person will now answer the phone. There will be no more answering machines or endless keypad selections, Frazier said. And staff will have scripts to provide accurate information.

• All current Buffalo students reaching the end of their current school’s grade level, and moving up to a new elementary or high school, will receive preprinted applications that already have much of their student information filled in. That will save work and reduce the likelihood of errors for both applicants and registration office staff.

• The registration office is now making better use of a special “language line” that enables student placement staff to communicate with non-English-speaking immigrant applicants through a telephone translator.

More changes are likely to come as the district continues to receive feedback, Frazier said. “There’s nothing that’s not being examined.”

For more application information and material, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone email: stan@buffnews.com and dswilliams@buffnews.com