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Lottery Basics

This page covers:

  • The two types of lotteries found in Portland Public Schools
  • How the lottery makes its selections
  • What gives some an advantage in the lottery

If you want to look at a variety of public options, then you’ll need to learn about the lottery.  Actually, we should say lotteries, because there are two types in Portland Public:  (1) the main lottery which doles out spots for the Focus Option schools & Language Immersion programs, and (2) the individual school lotteries that each charter school holds on their own.  That’s right – each charter school has its own separate lottery.  So if you are looking for options outside of your neighborhood school, you may well be entering more than one lottery.

A bit of history on the school lottery in Portland:  It has been around for awhile and for decades offered good odds for getting you a spot.  But in the last 15 years the district added several specialty programs, and interest in school choice has skyrocketed. This of course means that odds have decreased and tension has increased for choice-seeking families.

So, how competitive is it?  We haven’t been able to get our hands on any data from PPS as to what percentage of people get spots.  Anecdotally, we have seen about half of our friends be successful in lotteries, many of them because they applied two or more years in a row (which doesn’t necessarily increase your odds – just gives you another chance of getting lucky).  Of course it depends on the school – some are nearly impossible to get into, a select few are quite easy – but you should not enter into the process assuming that you will be successful. 

PPS Charter School Lotteries

The individual charter school lotteries are very simple – you contact the school (or consult its website) to find out their process and deadline.  Each has a simple document, usually available online, that you must fill out and return to them by a set date to participate.   Be aware that many of the charter schools (as well as the Focus Option schools in the district lottery) require that you attend an informational session before submitting a lottery form, so you cannot be completely spontaneous.

Once the charter schools have your form, they do their hocus pocus selection process (a randomized computer selection usually) then let you know via mail if you have a spot or are waitlisted, and how much time you have to respond should you be one of the lucky “winners.”  Like the PPS central lottery, siblings of current students are generally given preference, which will shift your odds, depending on how many siblings apply. The mid-March timing is similar to the central lottery, but not exactly the same, so be vigilant about getting those dates marked in the calendar if you have interest in a charter school. 

The PPS Focus Option Lottery for Focus Option schools and Language Immersion programs

A Focus Option lottery is held for other (ie. not charter) PPS Schools.  These include Focus Options and with specialized programs and Language Immersion programs, which are either completely filled by lottery, or have leftover spots once the neighborhood population has been accounted for.  

The Focus Option lottery allows any Portland parent to apply for a transfer to certain schools via a lottery up until a certain date (usually mid-March) – so again, look up that deadline and put it in your calendar.  The lottery (for K-8 options) allows you to list a first choice, second choice, and third choice - and it gives priority to:

1. Siblings of a current student at that school.  These kiddos are given “preferred enrollment.”   When you fill out your lottery application, you will indicate that your child is a sibling and this will put you at the front of the line.  This does not officially guarantee you a spot, for it could be that the number of siblings exceeds the number of available slots.  But in most cases, this is a golden ticket into a school, especially in “intake” years like kindergarten and sixth grade.

2. Those whose meet income eligibility requirements (for certain programs).  Some of the Focus Option or Language Immersion programs in PPS have an under-average enrollment of students that qualify for free and reduced meals.  As a way to balance student population in these programs the PPS lottery will favor up to 45% of available slots toward those students who meet lower income eligibility requirements.  Those who want to apply (and therefore have a greater chance of winning a lottery spot) submit a confidential income eligibility form along with their lottery application.

Once students fitting into the above categories are placed, the lottery then does a random selection of all those who listed that school as a first choice, filling the remaining spots, followed by the waitlist spots.  If there are still spots available after all the first choice folks have been plugged in, they move on to randomly choosing from those who listed that school as a second choice (and didn’t get their first choice school).  They then do the same for the third choice round.

The long and the short of this process is that if you are interested in schools that are widely desired, your first choice will likely be the only choice that really matters, since nearly all of the most popular schools fill their slots and waiting list with first choice applicants.  Furthermore, you will only get your second choice if your second-choice school could not fill its spots with those who listed it as a first choice. 

Confused yet?

Finding Out the Results

The results of the lottery will be mailed to you during the week specified by PPS on their website, or as specified by the charter school.  Some years the district’s notification date gets pushed back as the lottery is being run, so if you don’t get your letter call the transfer office or check the PPS School Choice website.

The letter from the PPS district-wide lottery will clearly state where your child has a spot for the following year, and will automatically register your child in that school.  If you decide that you do NOT want that spot for your child, you have to indicate that on the form that they provide and mail it by the date that they specify. Turning down a spot should automatically put you on the roster for your local neighborhood school, but go by and register anyway, as things like this do fall through the cracks.


Making a decision is often the hardest part – many a Portlander has crossed fingers for the lottery for months only to decide to turn down just the spot they have been awaiting.  The lure of the neighborhood experience is hard to resist!  Usually you get a week or two to make your final decision – best of luck with that one.

Note: What does a school search look like? It might start out like this, even a year before kindergarten. You can follow one west side family's search here; as well as this example from an east side family.


Visit the PPS School Choice webpage as it is the best source of up-to-date information about the lottery.  If you want to explore any charter school options, gather the admissions/enrollment information from each school’s website.

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