Three years into its expanded program, the Ernest Hemingway STEAM School is overbooked for next year’s sixth grade—and kids are facing a weighted lottery to determine who gets available slots.
Until now, Hemingway’s middle school fell short of capacity. But, its popular curriculum—and central Ketchum location—have gained traction now that it has extended all the way to eighth grade. The school’s 73-student fifth-grade class is the district’s largest, according to Principal Tish Short. It only has room for 55 in its sixth grade.
“We’re maxed out,” Short said.
The news sent some parents reeling, according to those who have contacted the Idaho Mountain Express. Many heard of the selection process for the first time at a meeting with Short last Thursday night.
Short worked with administrators at the district office to develop a plan. The system prioritizes interested students based on seven tiers.
“It’s a bit of a misnomer to call it a lottery,” she said. “I didn’t think it was fair to families who have invested in Hemingway since kindergarten to be put in a basket with everyone else.”
First choice goes to children of staff. Second, to students continuously enrolled at Hemingway since kindergarten who also have siblings in the school. Third, to those continuously enrolled without siblings. Fourth, to students who enrolled after kindergarten with siblings. Fifth, to those who enrolled after kindergarten without siblings. Sixth, to any other Blaine County School District student. Seventh, to anyone new to the district.
“When she finished, you could hear a pin drop,” said Ketchum parent Harry Bolton of the meeting. “People were stunned.”
Bolton’s two eldest children went to Hemingway, though his youngest son started school elsewhere, while the family was living in California. They’ve since moved back. His son is fifth priority on the School District’s scale.
“It’s not a lottery, it’s a priority system,” Bolton said. “If you’re going to do a lottery, make it fair for everybody.”
There are no boundaries on the Hemingway middle school—or, for that matter, Wood River Middle School in Hailey. In younger grades, students south of Ohio Gulch can attend Hemingway’s elementary school as space allows. So far, it has. Between 20 and 30 percent of its students hail from the south valley, according to district Communications Director Heather Crocker. Many are moving into the middle school years with higher priority than kids who live closer to the school; of the 48 fifth-grade families who have been with the school since kindergarten, 24 are from Hailey, according to Short.
“They’ve made a huge commitment to this school,” Short said. “If people have a problem with it, they can take it up with the school board.”
The board set the school up this way when it approved Hemingway’s expansion in February 2017. And, it’s the student-teacher ratio established by board policy that caps enrollment at 55, Crocker said.
The district typically uses a lottery for entrance to its Dual Immersion programs at Hemingway and at Alturas Elementary School in Woodside. The bilingual curriculum is also open to kids countywide. But the process is a little different, giving staff kids and siblings priority until half the class is filled. Then it brings in students from a designated attendance area, followed by remaining entrants. Both programs have whittled down numbers that way every year, Crocker said.
At Hemingway, the district won’t know how many students will miss the cut until preregistration in January. It could be as few as three or four, Short said. Polling students, she found around 15 kids with other plans— “though that could change in a heartbeat,” she said.
Hemingway will hold a middle school open house on Jan. 13, Crocker said, followed by an event at Wood River Middle School on Jan. 15 to help families decide. Preregistration forms are due back to fifth-grade teachers on Friday, Jan 17. If needed, the lottery will follow in an open public meeting, Crocker said.
“The good news is, the school met its goal,” she said. “It reinvented itself—enrollment was declining, and now it stabilized. We’ve given parents a middle school option in the north valley. That was a request from the community, and we’ve responded to it.”