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South End

The Polson family

Kathy, Eliza , Glyn, and Ayla Polson.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Kathy, Eliza , Glyn, and Ayla Polson.

Updated: Dec. 15, 2011 -- Within about a month of enrolling their daughter at St. Mary’s in Brookline, the Polsons got some surprising news from Boston school officials: A spot at their first-choice school, the Quincy, had opened up. Did they want it?

Even though Ayla was happily enjoying St. Mary’s, Kathy and Glyn decided to grab the spot - and Ayla enrollled at the Quincy in late October. They had long wanted, ideally, a public elementary school in their neighborhood for their first child, and hope Ayla’s younger sister will join her there someday.

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In an e-mail sent in mid-December, Kathy Polson writes: “The transition is going well- she loves the new school and is very happy- actually much happier. She tells me it is because she is going to school in her neighborhood with her friends. It is also nicer for Glyn and I with connections in the neighborhood.”

Updated: Oct. 2, 2011 -- Weeks before her first day of school, 5-year-old Ayla Polson had the school uniform for St. Mary's in Brookline all set - the white blouse, plaid jumper, and black shoes. Her parents, Glyn and Kathy, had been using the word "kindergarten" a lot by late summer, hoping to prepare the oldest of their two children for the transition.

Courtesy the Polson family

Ayla Polson on her first day of school at St. Mary's school in Brookline.

And so far, Ayla has loved her new school – especially music, gym, drawing and spelling, her father says.

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 “It’s going really well,” said Glyn, 37, a lawyer whose family lives in the South End.

   The decision to send Ayla to St. Mary's came after the couple learned they were shut out of their top three choices in the Boston Public School lottery. They were put on the waiting lists, but there were dozens of other families ahead of them.

   They went from anger and frustration - to pragmatism. They started an intense house hunt on the North Shore. They talked to other anxious families who were weighing their odds of getting off waiting lists.

   Then a slot opened up at St. Mary's, a school they were impressed with, and so they grabbed it. The school will cost them about $4,500 a year, but that seemed a small price for temporary peace of mind.

"I'm happy with where we are now, though I'm still frustrated that she can't go to a school in her neighborhood and with friends who live in her neighborhood," said the father.

 They haven't ruled out trying the lottery again. Their youngest daughter is 2, and will be ready for kindergarten in just a few years. Two tuitions are not ideal, and the commute from the South End to Brookline is not simple. "It's going to be a work in progress,” Glyn said.

Updated: March 28, 2011 -- The letter came hours after the Polson family had left for vacation in Florida -- but still they got the bad news that day.

A neighbor, who had checked the mail for them, called when they landed at the airport: The Polson’s 4-year-old daughter, Ayla, did not get a seat at any of her three chosen schools -- the Quincy, Mary Lyons or the Hurley. Her parents, Kathy and Glyn Polson, sat in silence, as they drove to a friend’s house. They were “stunned,” and then wondered why they had been optimistic about such a random process.

Ayla was on the waiting list at St. Mary’s in Brookline, and they remain open to moving to Andover or North Reading. Still, they love their South End neighborhood, and hope maybe Ayla is high on the waiting list at one of the Boston public schools.

March 13, 2011 -- Kathy and Glyn Polson never thought of themselves as urbanites. Each grew up in rural neighborhoods -- her in Vermont, his in upstate New York. But about a decade ago, the couple moved to Boston’s South End, and instantly fell in love with city life.

About five years ago, their first daughter, Ayla, was born, and two years ago, their second daughter, Eliza. They fully expected their oldest child would attend a nearby kindergarten with her neighborhood peers.

And so it came as a shock when they realized that kindergarten slots in Boston were distributed by a lottery system - and worse yet, that they had lost an opportunity to boost their chances of getting their daughter into their top-choice school. Had they secured a seat for Ayla a year earlier as a pre-kindergarten student in that school, she would have been allowed to stay there in the years ahead.

“We were behind in the game,” said Glyn Polson, 37, a lawyer and president of the Friends of South End Library.

And so, starting last fall, they began visiting open houses and learning the complex application process. They started to second-guess their decision to stay in the city, and wondered if a suburban school system, which usually assigns seats based purely by neighborhood, was better. Just as they became more involved in the South End youth soccer league, they began driving to open houses in Andover and North Reading. Still, they were committed to trying to enroll their daughter in Boston, much as it triggered deep anxieties.

“It’s a lottery -- it’s up to chance,” said the mother, also 37, a nurse practitioner at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “It’s scary.”

After much research, they placed the Quincy School, near Chinatown, as their top choice, largely because they were impressed by its offerings and it is within walking distance of their home. Their second and third choices were the Mary Lyons School in Brighton and Hurley School in the South End. They want their daughter’s school to be strong in academic subjects, as well as offering programs in the arts, music and dance.

But mostly, they like the idea of proximity, and that their children will come to befriend others in the neighborhood. It bothers both parents that, even if their daughter obtains a seat in one of their top-choice schools, this random process will determine their fates for middle and high school. The father laments that this system “doesn’t encourage community building.”

For now, they are hoping for good news in the mail.

“We don’t want to move,” said the mother.

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