First Come, First Serve

Camping out for pre-K in Candler Park

After watching Kurt Busch take the checkered flag in the NASCAR Subway Fresh 500 on Saturday, David Roth packed his inflatable mattress, a folding picnic table, and a small grill into his Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorer and left his Ormewood Park house for a four-day camping trip.

After a three-mile drive, Roth inflated the mattress in the back of his SUV and set up the picnic table outside. Just after midnight, Roth was comfortably settled into his campsite on the side of Candler Park Road, alongside the golf course and across the street from Mary Lin Elementary School.

Roth and about 20 other campers lived on the roadside day and night, like Star Wars fanatics awaiting the opening of Episode III, until the morning of April 27. That's when Mary Lin Elementary filled the slots set aside for its free pre-kindergarten program.

The first 20 people in line would get to enroll their children. The 21st person would have to find another school.

"It's asinine," says Roth, whose daughter, Emery, will turn 4 on May 11, making her eligible to begin her pre-K scholastic career. "But with Atlanta public schools, you've got to do what's best for your child."

Mary Lin isn't the only pre-K program Emery Roth's in line for. She is 17th on the list to get into a YWCA pre-K program, 26th on the list for the Frazer Center's program, 13th on the list for the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church day care class, and has been accepted into Turner Broadcasting System's Second Generation pre-K class.

But the Roth family wants their firstborn at Mary Lin. The elementary school has a reputation for turning out students who score extremely well on state standardized tests.

Unlike other grade levels, where children have to attend the school whose district they live in, all 4-year-olds living in the Atlanta Public School District are eligible to attend pre-K at any of the system's schools that offer the program.

Not all school districts enroll kids on a first come, first serve basis. Some systems, like DeKalb County, use a lottery, meaning there's no need for parents to camp out to ensure their child gets into a good program. In DeKalb, it's pure chance.

But in the Atlanta district, competition is fierce to get into a pre-K program at a desirable school, partly because the state caps the size of classrooms at 20 students. If administrators were to expand their program at Mary Lin, for instance, they'd have to increase the program to 40 students - as well as add an additional classroom. Mary Lin Principal Ginger Vail says there's no space for that.

The funny thing is, Mary Lin officials don't even run the pre-K program. The state Department of Education supplies the teachers, the funding (from lottery sales) and the curriculum.

"I don't know what exactly they believe that their kids will derive from this," says Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Joe Manguno. "They don't want to be at any of the other schools that are also offering slots. I don't know if they think this will help their kids get into Mary Lin later or what. I'm not sure."

Manguno points out that there are more than enough slots for pre-K classes spread across the city.

Still, the camped out parents think that by getting their children into Mary Lin, they're getting them into the best pre-K.

"It's supposed to be a very good school," says Terry Roth, Emery's mother and a stay-at-home mom who, during the wait for Mary Lin's pre-K enrollment, kept her husband company during the day and slept at home with the children at night. "And I know it seems competitive and elitist. In some ways it seems really wrong."

Technically, David Roth and the others were breaking the law. An Atlanta ordinance outlaws camping in the city. But the parents were willing to risk it.

The first night David Roth staked his spot, he was the sole camper - in the chilly, 35-degree night.

But by 7:30 Sunday morning, a dozen others had joined Roth, who works as a salesman for a chemical company (during his camping trip, he worked from his car). That evening, Roth and another parent passed the time by playing a round of golf at the Candler Park Golf Course.

On Monday morning, 16 people were lined up behind Roth. Two families were staying in a pop-up trailer parked streetside. On Monday afternoon, the first person to arrive after Roth lay sleeping in the backseat of a blue Ford Mustang. Roth says she's the grandmother of a child a Mary Lin pre-K hopeful.

Parents first lined up at Mary Lin for days on end four years ago. Since then, parents have devised their own ad hoc rules, with the first person on the scene acting as a sheriff of sorts.

When campers arrived, they put large, homemade signs in the windshields of their vehicles, displaying the order in which they got there. Roth's windshield proudly revealed the family's place: No. 1.

Roth therefore kept the list of new arrivals, each of whom signed in to establish a place in the line. At first, Roth didn't mind when people left, but they couldn't be gone long. And at least one family member had to sleep in line every night.

As more people showed, Roth's rules got stricter. After 20 campers arrived, he insisted that parents leave the line for no longer than 20 minutes - or risk losing their place.

Mary Lin officials promised that on Tuesday night (after CL went to press) parents would get to sleep inside the school, in a hallway that leads to the sign-in area for the pre-K class. David Roth says the group would self-regulate to ensure everyone remained in the correct order.

But what if someone snuck his or her way in before the other parents?

"There'd probably be a brawl," Roth says with a laugh - one that's not deep enough to cover up the fact that he's kind of serious.

"Think of the people who don't have the financial flexibility and support system to be able to do this," he says. "That to me is bullshit. I feel sorry for them. They're stuck with a pre-K system that may be subpar."