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Lottery Strategy

This page covers:

  • A review of basic lottery points
  • Calculating your odds for lottery success and why you should bother doing so
  • Getting results and deciding

So… gaming the lottery.  You would think that a school lottery would be a fairly straightforward gamble.  And it is, if you can get the relevant information.  The key here: do your homework as best you can, then close your eyes and cast the dice.  Don’t forget to spit on them first.

Recap of Key Points on the Lottery Basics:

  • Multiple lotteries - There is a Portland Public School lottery that selects candidates for Focus Option and Language Immersion program placements.  Each Charter School holds its own lottery independent of the larger School Choice Lottery.
  • Advantage for siblings and those who meet income eligibility requirements - If you already have a child at a school, your other children will get top priority in placement at that same school.  If you meet certain low income requirements you will get priority in certain lottery options as well, but only up to 45% of available slots.
  • First choice matters - Those programs that are widely popular rarely even consider anyone who lists their school as a second choice.  If you are favoring programs that you know are well-liked in the community, then realize that only your first choice really matters, so choose it carefully, with as full a picture of your odds as possible.

Calculating Your Odds for Success

This wiggly process is never precise, but you can gather some information to help you get an idea of your chances.  You should know up front that Portland Public Schools is somewhat conflicted about the issue of school choice, making information sometimes hard to find.  You’ll have to be a sleuth to get data and may have to make some phone calls, but here’s what we suggest:

1.  Find out the number of spots available per grade level for transfers for the current cycle year. This information should be available in the months before the lottery at the Focus Option Transfer page.

2.  Size up last year’s competition for spots.  Schools do come in and out of the limelight, but usually last year’s odds will give you a decent sense of what you’re up against.  Recent years’ information can be found at Prior Transfer Cycle Data.

3.  Find out the estimated number of incoming siblings and slots set aside for high need students.  Individual schools gather this information in anticipation of the lottery and tours, so ask when you tour or call in February or early March.  Do the math.  For instance, Winterhaven K-8 might have 28 slots for kindergarten, but 10 of those might be earmarked for siblings, and 45% of which would be weighted toward income eligible applicants, leaving possibly fewer than 18 spots available to vie for.

4.  In the days before the lottery closes, you can attempt to find out how many applications have come in for a given grade level to calculate your chances.  Getting this information is entirely dependent upon the cooperation of the secretary at the school you’re coveting, but most secretaries will give you the running total of applications that have been submitted so far.  

Why do I need to calculate these odds?

You may not need to.  If you only have one school that interests you and your neighborhood school feels like a strong option, you may not need to go sleuthing.  But, if you have several schools of interest, getting the above information will help you determine the following:

  • How hopeful to be - There is an emotional element in all this, and knowing how much of a long-shot a school is can help you gauge how invested you should be.
  • Whether to keep looking for other choices -  If you have found a school you love, but calculate it to be a long shot, you might want to keep looking in hopes of finding something you like that has  better odds.
  • How to order your choices on the lottery form - Having an idea of your odds can help you make educated decisions about how to rank your choices.  Say for instance, that you’re very interested in two schools (that are not your neighborhood school) for your kindergarten child.  One school has poor odds – you know that there might be fewer than ten slots left this year once siblings and income eligible applicants are accounted for; last year there were 85 applications, and so far this year there are 79 turned in.  The second school has better odds – there are 18 spots and only 35 applications turned in, up from 32 the year before.  Even if the second school is less attractive, you would be wise to consider listing it as your first choice, especially if you’re not very excited about your default neighborhood school.

How do I find out my results and make a final decision?

The results of the lottery get mailed out during the week specified on the PPS School Choice Transfer Process page, or as specified by the charter school.  Some years the district’s notification date gets pushed back once the lottery is underway, so if you don’t get your letter call the transfer office or check back on the School Choice Transfer page.

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, indicate that on the form they provide and mail it in by the specified date. 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: How did other families strategize and make a decision? Follow one west side family's search here; as well as this example from an east side family.

Review this page and make some notes for yourself about information you’ll need to gather on your school tours in order to calculate your odds.

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