When Kathy and Glyn Polson started a life together 10 years ago, they imagined spending years in their South End row house and committed themselves to the city.
They made friends in the neighborhood, enjoyed short commutes to work, and started a family. Glyn became president of the local library association. Kathy joined a mothers group.
But recently, they have found themselves checking out open houses in Andover and North Reading and, in painful late-night discussions, reluctantly weighing something neither of them wants, a move to the suburbs.
The deciding factor is due to arrive soon in the mail, a letter from the Boston School Department letting them know whether their nearly 5-year-old daughter, Ayla, is slated for a seat in the nearby school their hearts are set on, or in one of two backup choices. If not, they will have to seek openings at other city schools that other families have already picked over, consider tuition payments to private schools, or leave the city.
“It’s like putting your life on hold until we get a form letter in the mail,” Glyn Polson said. “Given the randomness of the school assignment system, it has the unintended effect of driving families out of the city. No one really wants to leave the education of their kids to chance.”
It is a story that will repeat itself all over Boston in the days ahead, as thousands of parents wait with hope and dread for similar letters after spending six anxiety-filled months navigating the city’s school lottery system. It is a grueling annual rite that asks parents to list the schools they want for their children, schools that excel in science or the arts or that are generally strong, or schools in safe neighborhoods or near home. Then assignments are doled out based on a host of variables, including the most fickle: Luck.
The system is meant to give everyone a fair shot at a good public education. But in a city where too many lower-tiered schools are mixed in with the good ones, competition for the best is fierce. Last year, more than 600 of the 5,500 families trying to win slots did not get one of the schools they wanted most - and there is no reason to think it won’t work out that way this year, too. For some families, that will mean a choice between sticking it out in a city with wildly inconsistent schools or opting for a suburb where finding a good school seems less of a gamble.
Their choices will not only determine their own future paths, they will also have an inexorable impact on Boston, where the number of families with children is dropping. To look deeply into a process that has such a grip on Boston life, the Globe is following 13 families from across a spectrum of neighborhoods and backgrounds as they make their first important decisions about their children’s educations.
They have toured numerous schools and tussled with a sometimes bewildering bureaucracy. Some have submitted as many as 12 schools they would accept, others just three. Several said they have no choice but to stay, no matter what the lottery’s outcome. But some have already decided that if they get none of their choices, or one they are hesitant about, they will leave the city.
Residents who savor life in Boston but also have the means to leave if the city lets them down are just the kind that Mayor Thomas M. Menino once vowed to lure to Boston and keep here. Middle-class parents who tend to be involved in schools and civic life are seen as critical to both the health of the school system and the city’s ability to create vibrant, stable neighborhoods that attract businesses and boost the city’s tax base.
And yet they are leaving in alarming numbers. Though the School Department keeps no figures directly linking the departure of middle-class families to schools, a Globe analysis of School Department and US Census data reveals a city with a small and declining number of families with children and a school system increasingly abandoned by all but the poor.
The number of households with children fell 14 percent to about 53,000 between 2000 and 2009, according to census estimates. In that year, children made up just 17 percent of Boston residents, one of the smallest proportions in the country.
Middle-class families could be leaving for many reasons, specialists said, and may lean toward departing even before trying to enroll their children in public schools. But the frustrations of the lottery process are clearly decisive for some.
According to School Department data, more than half the children who did not get the kindergarten or preschool programs they wanted ultimately left Boston schools. A School Department survey two years ago found that children from more affluent neighborhoods, including West Roxbury, the Back Bay, and Beacon Hill, were far more likely than those from other areas of the city to quit the school system after failing to get the schools they preferred.
Meanwhile, the number of Boston school students who are classified as low-income has been climbing - now making up 74 percent of all students - even as incomes in the city overall are on the rise.
“Overwhelmingly and almost reflexively, middle-class families leave the city when children reach school age,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that has funded city initiatives to lure more middle-class families into the school system. “For many families, it’s not a debate.”
For Theresa Strang, it was a debate, and an anguished one. After last year’s lottery gave her none of the three schools she had hoped for - all of them high-performing schools in her West Roxbury neighborhood, including the Kilmer School just three blocks from her home - she applied for eight more schools. Not getting any of those, she campaigned with other parents to end the school lottery system.
It was a futile effort, and finally, in a decision that kept her and her husband up nights, they decided on a new home in Natick, abandoning their cherished house in the city.
“When we moved in, I said I was going to die in that house,” Strang said.
Menino and Superintendent Carol R. Johnson say many parents like the Strangs are abandoning the city needlessly - leaving after trying to get into a few well-known and fiercely sought-after schools, not realizing that many more are excelling.
”The problem is a lot of these parents go by word of mouth, and they want to apply to the Kilmer and the Lyndon,” said Menino, referring to two immensely popular West Roxbury K-8 schools with some of the highest MCAS scores in the city. “They are not investigating other schools that are just as good, education-wise.”
Officials say that parents who reluctantly send their children to schools less well known for excellence can end up pleasantly surprised, and the city has been recruiting some of them to spread the city’s message at house parties and gatherings at libraries, toy stores, and family-favored spots.
The effort has helped, officials say, and they point to parents who have breathed new life into schools like the Haley School in Roslindale, the Manning School in Jamaica Plain, and the Hurley School in the South End.
But such efforts can’t overcome a stark reality: Half the city’s 135 elementary, middle, and high schools perform so poorly on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams that the state could designate any of them underperforming, according to a Globe review of MCAS data.
Just 40 schools would qualify for the state’s designation of Level 1, meaning they have no academic problems. And after parents consider other differences - some elementary and K-8 schools have art, music, or instrumental lessons, while others do not; some emphasize science, while others struggle to cover the topic; some have shorter school days, bigger classrooms, or better athletic facilities - many feel they are left with few choices.
Still, some are willing to take a chance. Ellen Shattuck Pierce and Samuel Pierce of Jamaica Plain gambled in 2009, on Roxbury’s Mendell School. With poor test scores, it was not among their top choices for their son, Amos. But they accepted a seat in desperation after losing out on bids for higher-performing schools.
In Amos’s first weeks at school, the Pierces came to be impressed with the teachers and principal at Mendell and delighted in the character of the red brick building with marble and hardwood floors. Ellen Shattuck Pierce immediately joined a small group of mothers eager to turn around the school, and the family ultimately bought a house across the street from it.
“Amos loved it from the start,” she said. “You don’t always get what you want, but then it works out. It’s fun to feel you are part of something and that showing up really matters.”
In the end, however, few parents are willing to take that kind of gamble, clamoring instead for one of the proven, talked-about schools that are flooded with as many as a dozen applications for each available seat. Underscoring the lopsided appeal of top schools, School Department data show that just 10 of 81 schools received a third of all top three requests for kindergarten and preschool placement.
For parents like Strang, there is a reason for that. In her words, “I don’t want to experiment on my child.”
Top city leaders, including Menino and Johnson, acknowledge that Boston has too many subpar schools and say they are trying to tackle the problem with an overhaul of 11 schools deemed underperforming by the state. At a cost of more than $22 million, officials have brought in dozens of new teachers to many of those schools, hired several new principals, and are experimenting with new innovative teaching techniques.
The city is focusing its efforts on a swath of the city that officials have dubbed the “Circle of Promise,” extending through some of Boston’s poorest areas - Roxbury’s Dudley Square and Grove Hall, Dorchester’s Geneva Avenue-Bowdoin Street area, and Jamaica Plain’s Egleston Square. The area has among the city’s highest concentrations of school-aged children and some of its lowest performing schools.
Solving problems there, Menino said, would go a long way toward making Boston a city known, at last, for consistently high-quality schools. Achieving that goal, some parents hope, might also allow a return of neighborhood schools and, ultimately, the abolition of the lottery system.
Anna Ross, a mother of two young children in Dorchester, is waiting anxiously to see how things work out. She and her husband want to stay in the city. But in recent years they have watched as other parents in their neighborhood moved a short distance across the Boston line to Milton when their children approached school age. She wonders whether she will be next.
“I look at Boston,” she said, “and I think, ‘The city should want me and my husband to stay.’ ”
Patricia Wen, Jenna Russell, Stephanie Ebbert, Meghan E. Irons, Akilah Johnson, Maria Sacchetti, Matt Carroll, and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.