Boston parents who do not get their choices of kindergartens for their children in the first round of the lottery now have the option of letting the School Department pick a school for them under a change that went into effect last week.
The change offers an alternative to the controversial decades-old system in which parents registering their children for kindergarten had to try their luck repeatedly in the School Department’s lottery until they got a school with an available seat — a stressful process that has left some children without a school to report to in the fall.
“The reality is we never want to find ourselves with families who thought they were doing everything right and find themselves in September without a seat for their child,” said Denise Snyder, senior director of the School Department’s Welcome Services.
The option comes amid an uptick in enrollment in the lower grades and a growing public debate over the fairness of a lottery system in a city with schools of widely varying quality.
A few weeks before the start of the school year in August, more than 300 kindergartners still had not received school assignments. School officials could not say on Friday how many of those students were early registrants who had been waiting several months for a seat or late registrants who popped up in the summer.
Under state law, kindergarten is not mandatory, because children are not required to attend school until they turn 6. But the law does require school districts to make space available for the 5-year-olds whose parents want them to attend.
Previously in Boston, school officials would assign kindergarten applicants to a school their parent did not choose only if the child turned 6 by Dec. 31 of the upcoming school year.
But for all other would-be kindergartners — the majority of applicants — Boston has asked parents to keep applying to schools until their children get admitted to one with an open seat.
Parents in Boston, which divides the city into three sprawling geographic assignment zones, have the choice of more than a dozen schools. But parents tend to migrate in droves to a handful of them.
Under the new policy, when parents submit their school choices during registration, they can check a box that gives the School Department permission to assign their child to a school closest to their home with available seats if they do not secure any of their choices via the lottery.
If parents do not like the assignment, they can try their luck again in subsequent rounds of the lottery with a new slate of schools. Or parents can wait and see if their child gets into one of the schools they originally picked. The School Department places students on waiting lists for their top three school choices.
On Friday at the East Zone Family Resource Center , parents had mixed opinions about the new policy as they turned out for the first week of school registration for next fall.
Cristal Nieves of Dorchester said she liked the simplicity of the option. She moved to Boston from Lowell last summer, she said, and feels overwhelmed with the prospect of finding a school for her 4-year-old daughter.
“It gives me a headache,” Nieves said as she double-checked her registration form. “I’m just confused.”
But Lizbeth Candelaria of Dorchester said she has no intention of letting the School Department pick a school for her 4-year-old daughter. She has checked out more than a half-dozen schools, eliminating one because of a shooting at a nearby park and another because its bathrooms were not clean.
“I like to choose. I like to go inside the schools and see what it’s like and the programs they offer. I also want to know who is going to take care of her,” Candelaria said as she looked down at her daughter bundled up in a puffy jacket. “It’s going to be her second home. I want to make sure they treat her right.”
School officials had been reluctant to “administratively assign” students to kindergarten who do not get any of their choices, because it could ultimately leave them with a roster of students that includes hundreds who will never show up in classrooms.
That is because some parents want only certain schools for their children and if they do not get into them, they will turn to private schools, charter schools, or elsewhere.
But by making administrative assignments optional, school officials say they will have a better understanding of the number of families who will likely send their kindergartner to a school in September.
Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said officials anticipate only a small fraction of parents registering their children for kindergarten will utilize the new option — roughly 300 would-be kindergartners out of more than 4,000 expectant registrants.
The School Department based its projection on the number of families in the past who listed at least five schools on their initial registration forms and did not receive any of their choices. The department then considered how many of those families made more than one visit to a family resource center.
“The number 5 was decided on because when parents make fewer than five choices, they tend to be pretty set on wanting one of those schools, while parents who make more than five choices tend to be more open to receiving a seat somewhere in the city,” Wilder said in an e-mail.
Councilor John Connolly, who has been pushing for the School Department to guarantee kindergarten seats at schools closest to a family’s home, said the policy change was a step in the right direction but may not go far enough.
“A spot at the closest available school doesn’t mean a spot at a school close to home,” Connolly said. “I’m worried it won’t really address parent anxiety and confusion when we know the bulk of the elementary schools already have wait lists and a shortage of seats.”
An advisory committee appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino is examining recommendations to change the School Department’s assignment process so more students can attend schools close to their homes.
The committee could vote this month on recommendations, which could create smaller assignment zones or limit choices to a certain number of schools near a student’s home.