Bathed in light from soaring windows, kindergartners huddle around a table, engrossed in individualized iPad lessons. Shrugging off 20-degree temperatures, first-graders bound across Forbes Avenue for a hike in Frick Park. In a glass-walled "Thinking Lab," second-graders build to-scale models they've designed for a treehouse-style playground to be built at their Park Place school.
For parents looking for a creative, outdoorsy education for their future kindergartners -- with beautiful food in a beautiful building -- the Environmental Charter School seems like a dream.
Increasingly, it's nearly an impossible one.
At the school's lottery last month, fewer than 7 percent of those who applied and did not have a sibling already in the school were granted admission for next year's kindergarten -- lower than the percentage of applicants admitted at Yale University.
In the Pittsburgh region, parents are regularly dependent on luck for admission to the most popular charter schools and city magnet schools.
Charter schools are public schools operated by their own boards. The home district for each student pays a fee set by the state.
Magnet schools offer specialized programs to students throughout the city and are operated by Pittsburgh Public Schools.
By state law, admission for charter schools must be by random lottery, though there are some preferences, such as for siblings. Once that is taken into account, those living in the district or districts where the school is chartered have preference over those from other school districts if too many apply.
In the case of ECS, the number of siblings significantly reduces the odds of others getting in. And there are so many city residents who want in that those who live outside the city end up far down a waiting list.
While ECS might have the toughest odds for prospective applicants, it isn't alone. Other charter schools and city magnet schools have also drawn remarkably high demand.
Monica Lamar, principal at Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5 in Highland Park, a traditional academy for the arts and humanities, has a yellow notepad on her desk filled with names of parents whose calls she has returned, mainly asking "is there any way" when their kids were not admitted through the lottery.
Dilworth, the most popular city magnet this year, saw a spike of 214 applications, not counting siblings, for 49 spots open after sibling preference for the coming school year. The Pittsburgh Montessori PreK-8 magnet school in Friendship, the German magnet program at Linden K-5 in Point Breeze and the Spanish magnet program at Phillips K-5 on the South Side are also extremely competitive for admission.
Dilworth boasts stability -- just two principals in the last 15 years -- and an arts and humanities magnet program that provides for full-time art, general music and instrumental music teachers.
Last week, kindergartners sat drawing and coloring in a room with a wood-filled fireplace and a small piano. They excitedly waved their drawings when Ms. Lamar entered. "It's a zebra! It's two polar bears giving hugs!"
She credits the school's parents with spreading the word about the school and driving up applicants.
"We have a solid core of parents who believe in the school," she said. "I couldn't even do enough fliers to do what they do."
Other popular schools in the Pittsburgh region include the Propel Charter Schools, which were founded in 2003 with the mission of opening schools in high-poverty areas. There are now seven Propel elementary schools and two high schools, in locations from Kennedy to the North Side to Pitcairn.
All of the Propel Schools have competitive lotteries, with Propel Braddock Hills, Propel East (in Turtle Creek) and Propel Montour drawing the highest numbers of applicants at the elementary level. Video of the names being randomized in the lotteries is on Propel's website.
Across Pennsylvania, 44,000 students are on waiting lists for charter schools, according to 2010-11 data from the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. Most of those students are in Philadelphia, where charter schools are far more popular, and populous, than in the rest of the state. One school in Philadelphia, MaST Community Charter, already has more than 5,000 applications schoolwide for its lottery next week, CEO John Swoyer said.
As a whole, charter schools in Pennsylvania have struggled with reputation this year. Just 28 percent of charter schools made adequate yearly progress under new state calculations for the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, based in Beaver County, fired most of its top leadership last fall following a search by FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents.
The Environmental Charter School, Manchester Academic Charter School and Propel Montour were all downgraded from "made AYP" to "warning" under the new calculations.
Hilary Lackner and her husband were somewhat wary of charter schools when they started looking at schools for their daughter, Cordelia, now 5, preferring a traditional public school.
Then when the Regent Square couple started hearing fantastic reports about ECS, they were so discouraged by the odds of getting in that Ms. Lackner didn't even tour the school. "We didn't even visit it because it was like, why get your hopes up?" she said.
They didn't attend the school's lottery -- a public event that this year drew more than 100 people -- and were "amazed" to hear that Cordelia was chosen. She had also gotten into the city magnet school of their choice, but after finally touring ECS, they felt as if they couldn't pass it up.
"It is such a nurturing place," she said. "Going into the school, you just feel this sense that everyone is there to help children learn."
ECS was founded in 2008 by a group of parents from Regent Square who were looking for an alternative to the city public schools.
Initially the group contracted with the management firm Imagine Schools, based in Arlington, Va., which provided the foundational support. But the school parted ways with Imagine Schools in the summer of 2012 when it had matured and no longer needed that support.
The school is currently kindergarten through seventh grade and will reach its full complement of students next year, when it adds an eighth grade. This year, the school expanded into two buildings with the upper school for grades 4-8 staying at the original location at the former Regent Square School and the lower school for K-3 moving into the former Park Place School about two-thirds of a mile away on South Braddock Avenue.
Based on the demand, there have been serious discussions among school personnel about expanding further by opening another school, said Dwight Laufman, who previously headed the Pittsburgh-Mount Oliver Intermediate Unit and now serves as a consultant for ECS.
"There's a sense that we need to, but at the same time we need to finish this school," he said, referring to getting to the full K-8 size.
ECS used to advertise on buses and in magazines, he said, but this year decided it was no longer necessary.
This year, the school had 187 applicants for its kindergarten, 159 from inside the city of Pittsburgh. The school has 50 spots for kindergartners (two classes of 25, each with two certified teachers), but 37 of those spots were filled by siblings, who have preference.
Mr. Laufman, who attended this year's ECS lottery, described the event as bittersweet, with most people going away disappointed. "You can just feel that tension in the room," he said. "There's a lot of angst there."
This year, ECS hired an accounting firm to oversee the lottery. Last year, the school had to stop its lottery and resume it later after at least one student's residency status was coded incorrectly.
The city magnet schools also have had to make adjustments to their selection process over the years. For the first 17 years of the magnet programs, spots were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis -- a system that led to parents camping out in line as long as five days, day and night -- complete with porta potties, kerosene heaters, intricate sets of attendance rules and paid line sitters -- for a magnet seat.
Now, parents are able to rank up to three choices for magnets, with the lottery done by computer. Until 2009, separate lotteries were held for black and other students to try to achieve racial balance, but now all students are in the same lottery, with some preference given for low-income students.
The phenomenon of charter school lotteries across the country was documented in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." One school in the movie, the Harlem Success Academy, drew 767 applications for 35 spots.
For Maria Cohen of Squirrel Hill, repeated effort has been the key to lottery success at the Environmental Charter School. Both her sons were denied entrance in the kindergarten lottery, but her older son, Cole, got in this school year via the first-grade lottery. Her younger son will join him at the school next year.
She had enrolled them in private school before they got into ECS. She loves the environmental literacy classes at the school, the low student-teacher ratio and the lunch program that even offers cooking classes for students and parents.
When people ask where her children go to school, she hears one common response. "Most of them say, 'Oh my gosh, you're really lucky. How did you get in?' "
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308. First Published March 11, 2013 4:00 AM