Registration/School Assignment: getting technical again

This post is going to be a little technical. You have been warned. 🙂


So I have an online database; I am not aware of anyone who has written any queries against it other than myself (have not yet built the functionality to save and archive input queries). My overall goal is to 1) move responsibility for the “computer program” and relevant data away from Massachusetts and into Champaign, and 2) create a catalyst that results in provoking Unit 4 to be much more transparent about this whole process than they are now. That word “transparent” means different things to different people, so here is where I am coming from – basically, put as much information online as possible. Let people see what is happening. Sure, ok, remove names and addresses, I am cool with that.


In order for that to happen, some fundamental aspects of the system needs to be cleaned and organized a bit better. Throwing data with esoteric sounding column names up on a website is one step closer to going “online”, but that is going to lead to lots and lots of questions (“What the heck is pxastat?!?”). I have worked up a few examples demonstrating one possible way to reorganize the data, which fits into an overall plan I have – I think I am in Phase III now.

  • Phase I: FOIA Kindergarten Lottery data and create my own public database
  • Phase II: As a proof-of-concept, build forms that query the database and generate meaningful content
  • Phase III: Suggest ways to alter how data is presented to make consumption easier
  • Phase IV: Either wait for magic to happen, or volunteer to help implement suggestions
  • Phase V: Enjoy the wonderful new data that Unit 4 is transparently providing


I have already given an ERD (Entity Relationship Diagram) to Unit 4 with a suggested way to consolidate the data. I have also been in touch with Administration about various aspects of the School Assignment Process and have primed the pump for more FOIA requests this year (I have a few posts about that). My latest email to FIC asks 4 questions:

  1. Based on data from previous Kindergarten Lotteries, it appears that Sibling Priority is only applied to the First Choice (like Proximity). Is this in fact true, and is this the intended implementation of sibling priority?
  2. When a student is not assigned a choice, usually the “reason” fields (pxastat, pxbstat, ch1stat, ch2stat, etc) are populated with text describing why the choice could not be assigned (ie, “OUT OF SEATS”). However, in several cases these fields are not populated. Why not? What does that mean?
  3. When Dr. Alves delivers Kindergarten Lottery datasets to Unit 4, are they always delivered in an Excel Spreadsheet?
  4. Who is responsible for redacting data when the public (like myself) requests Lottery data via an FOIA?


One of my dreams is to provide Google API-like access to the data. The Google APIs are really slick – they provide read-only canned methods to manipulate data in lots of fun and creative ways. In the world of “Information Technology”, I really think highly of this fad (and yes, it is a fad – no telling how long it will last). What is the advantage for this kind of access to Kindergarten Lottery data? It makes it “easy”* to generate charts and/or carve out factual information to answer your questions. You want to know exactly how many seats are available at Bottenfield on May 5th, 2012? You want to find the percentage of parents that chose Robeson but did not get it? You want a trend of how “overchosen” Barkstall is over the years? How about a comprehensive demonstration of how all 693 children were assigned to schools in 2011?

*NOTE: “easy” is extremely subjective and I hate when people (ie, PR and Sales folks) use this word. Thus here I use it with witty sarcasm. 🙂


I must also confess that I am actually having fun with this project and I thoroughly enjoy teaching myself a lot of the pieces that make this work; PHP, javascript, APIs, mysql, CSS, HTML, etc. I get a kick out of turning the data ennui (a sea of boring, bland numbers) into dynamic, interactive and informative visualizations.


Is this at odds with my desire to “simplify” the system? This (ERD, online database, etc) might sound complicated and very low-level to readers. The way I see it, I have complaints and issues about the way Unit 4 is doing stuff now. But instead of whining about it, I am getting my butt in gear and doing something about it. I might be going off in the wrong direction or expending my energies on something completely worthless. Perhaps I am guilty of transforming a molehill into a mountain. Maybe. But so far the feedback I have received suggests otherwise, so I am going to keep going in this direction.


I think Unit 4 is awesome! I say that sincerely. Yes, there are problems and Big Issues(tm). And my fascination with the Lottery may border on the unhealthy. But when I hear so many parents that have such a negative perception of this stress-inducing process that forms their first impression, I start to get concerned. We can make this better.

8 Responses to “Registration/School Assignment: getting technical again”

  1. jason Says:

    Why not look into the Daily Illini?

    Couldn’t you see a Local Schools link in there?

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    It took me a while to figure out what you were saying. In essence, you are suggesting that I get the DI to host a “database”. I put that in quotes because they do not expose the database like I do. And having said that, I do not need anybody to host my database – I am doing that quite well thank you very much. 🙂 What I would like is for Unit 4 to take ownership of it.

  3. Sena Cooper Says:

    How would one go about writing a query against the database?

  4. Papaathome Says:

    Just remember the conversation we had as the U 4 Friends tech group; is it sustainable? If the district takes it over, it will have a different vision – it will have policies and people may end up FIOA-ing it. Not sure why you need someone to take it over. My observation is that what would be truly helpful is for you to have some sort of official relationship where someone watches over your shoulder for privacy concerns but otherwise gives you all the data. I have a hard time imagining that anyone in the district matches your expertise and energy for this work.

  5. charlesdschultz Says:

    Sena, start here:
    You kinda have to know SQL, and I know someone who teaches SQL at Parkland (disclosure: me). If you know SQL, than I can throw a bunch of jargon at you and hope you understand what I am talking about. 🙂

    Chuck, good point. Without digressing too much, I think “sustainability” is too often used as a counter-argument. Yes it is important to consider, but it is not always the crucial factor. I think we (the public and the School District) are just going to have to do a dance together to figure out who plays what role best. If nothing else, I want Unit 4 to force Dr. Alves to use some kind of standard when delivering data. And when Dr. Alves is no longer doing it, we will have that standard in place. In terms of having “someone” with an official relationship, I totally agree. I think we are moving closer to that direction.

  6. charlesdschultz Says:

    Below is a response from Doretha Simmons of the FIC. I was not previously aware that Sibling Priority is only applied to the First Choice – another little fact that seems to slip through the cracks. I don’t quite understand the response for #4.

    1. Sibling Priority is only applied to a parent’s First Choice in the computer assignment process. After that, the computer recognizes/maintains seat capacity, socio economic status (SES), and programmatic needs which are generally ESL and Bilingual seats.

    2. The reason fields for the Kindergarten Lottery are generated by Dr. Alves and he would have to be the one to explain that text. We are not given that information.

    3. Yes, the Kindergarten Lottery datasets are always delivered in an Excel Spreadsheet.

    4. In regards to redacting data for the public, the District is only responsible for providing data that is currently available/accessible. If a request is made for information in a particular format that the District does not have, the District does not have to honor that request. The FOIA laws do not require that the District create datasets or templates they normally do not use.

  7. 2012-2013 Kindergarten Lottery data released « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] yet added this to my online database, but will do so later today. I was a tad disappointed that my request to standardize the data was not satisfied – my hope is that we will stop using Alves and thus the standarization […]

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