School Enrollment / Ages 2-18

What Parents Need to Know About School Lotteries

If your local school district uses a “school choice” system, you’ll probably have to enter a lottery to find out where your child will go to school. If that feels overwhelming, start here.

Many communities assign school placements based on your address: In systems like this, your child will usually attend the school closest to where you live. But if you live in a city or town with “school choice,” you will most likely enter a lottery to find out where your child will attend. This can feel confusing, especially if you have a lot of options. Here are some common questions about school lotteries, and our top tips for managing the process.

What is a “school choice” system?

Large cities with many schools often use “school choice” and use lotteries to assign students placements. They usually do this to give families more control over where their child goes to school. School choice can also be a good way to make sure schools across a large district are equitable and serve a diverse group of students. School choice systems can be more confusing for families, but they also offer opportunities for families to choose a school that fits their needs.

Why would I need to enter a lottery if my child is guaranteed a seat in school?

Your child is guaranteed a seat in your school district, but not in any particular school. The lottery is used to assign students to different schools. Usually, the lottery will take into account family preferences as well as other criteria.

How does a school lottery work?

The specific rules of your school lottery will depend on where you live. Usually, families will be asked to rank a few choices of schools, either in a paper application or online. The lottery system will then assign each applicant to a school. Rather than placing students randomly, the system will generally take into account family preferences, as well as other criteria (for example, some districts want to make sure all their schools serve a similar number of students with particular learning needs). Most school lottery systems also assign points to each family based on factors such as where you live or where any older siblings already go to school.

We have recently moved to our town and our child is in an older grade. Do we still have to enter the school lottery?

Most school lotteries assign seats for children at 4 or 5 years old (typically for pre-K or kindergarten classrooms), or at an older entry point like 6th grade (for middle school) or 9th grade (for high school). You can learn how to enroll an older child by checking in with your school district’s registration office or welcome center, or by walking into any school in your district and asking to speak to someone about enrolling.

Entering a school lottery can feel overwhelming. Here’s what our Navigators recommend for managing the process:


Find out when the applications are due, and start well before that date.

Many school districts will have a student registration office or a welcome center. You can call, email, or visit this office to learn about the school lottery. Most application processes take place in the winter or early spring.


If your lottery system takes applications online, create an account in the online portal first.

Once you’ve created an account, you’ll be able to see what types of documents you’ll need to apply for your child.


Collect all your documents in advance.

Usually, this will include things like proof of residence and your child’s birth certificate. Here’s more information about those documents and what to do if you're missing them


Consider your family’s priorities and make a list of which schools fit.

Some families prefer their children to go to school close to home, while others might prioritize factors like the style of instruction, sports or extracurricular activities, or specialized programs like language immersion or accelerated learning. Consider factors like the time each school starts and ends and after-school care, too.


Figure out for which schools, if any, you’ll have priority or bonus points.

This will depend on the rules of your school system. Some school districts give each family priority at their closest neighborhood school, or where an older sibling already attends. Understanding the rules of your system can help you figure out any schools where you’ll have an advantage getting in. If you have priority or bonus points for any school, it’s a good idea to include that school in your top-3 choices (unless you really don’t want your child to attend).


Try to identify multiple schools where you think your family would be happy.

Sometimes a few schools are in very high demand, which can make them harder to get into. But often, there are other perfectly good schools that are less popular. Instead of getting your heart set on one top choice, try to figure out a few schools you feel good about for your child.


Apply before the first application deadline.

Some systems take applications in multiple rounds. This means that if you miss the first deadline, you can still apply later. But we recommend that you submit your application before the first deadline if at all possible. Often, it can be harder to get a seat in your first-choice school later.

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