Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Sergey Hamdan, center, is shocked when his number is the final one drawn during a special lottery to attend the Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology in the fall. His best friend, Tariq Hassan, left, was selected earlier in the process. Hassan's father, Zuhair, congratulates the two students on Monday morning.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Since sixth grade, best friends and cousins Tariq Hassan and Sergey Hamdan have wanted to be doctors.
Setting their sights on the prestigious Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology, the Dacula Middle School students mapped medical careers out in their heads, each dreaming of the future, mentally dismantling the obstacles ahead.
But despite dreaming, planning and studying to prepare for attending the specialty charter school, there was one factor that neither could manipulate: chance.
Hassan, 14, and Hamdan, 13, showed up early Monday morning, each clutching a piece of paper in their hands. Each piece of paper contained a random number between 1 and 696.
They took their seats in an expansive auditorium at the Gwinnett County Public School System's Suwanee headquarters.
At 7:30 a.m. sharp, a school official approached the microphone, greeting the audience. She explained the rules: 696 applicants with 350 spots open at the charter school. Roughly half could attend GSMST. Others would be placed on a waiting list and might get a call. Maybe.
She said the lottery process would commence. Her assistant turned a crank on a large golden cylinder, tossing nearly 700 numbered slips of paper. The school official leaned forward, plucking out the first slip.
Some in attendance sat on the edge of their seats, while others stared at the floor. Some prayed silently, eyes pinched shut. Children in the audience like Hassan and Hamdan watched the golden cylinder turn, squeaking to a stop, as the woman drew the next number.
Hassan jumped up, fist pumping. "Yes!" he shouted. Several in the audience laughed, directing congratulatory smiles at the young man. He gave his best friend, Hamdan, a high five and sat down.
Hassan's father, Zuhair, hugged his son. Both smiled brightly. The next moments were filled with whispers between father and son as they exchanged surprised exclamations.
And Hamdan waited.
In its fifth year, Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology is accepting the largest freshman class to date. The school's principal, Jeff Mathews, said the school aims to "fill the void for students interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, so that we can begin to impact the workforce."
Added Mathews: "Although GSMST is an option for rising ninth-graders in Gwinnett, the school district has high-quality education throughout all high schools in the county."
Mathews said young people interested in GSMST, students like Hassan and Hamdan, are "typically interested in STEM related fields and are interested in an integrated curriculum that gears them toward high levels of relevant learning."
As Hassan and Hamdan continued to listen to numbers being called Monday morning, they traded glances. A hundred numbers were called. Two hundred. By the time the 300th slip of paper was drawn, Hamdan slumped in his chair.
Meanwhile, others stood, erupting with cheers and laughs, unbridled happiness for their granddaughter, friend, cousin or son.
The number 220 was called, and Maureen Ezikpe jumped to her feet, stomping a victory dance.
Her son, George, 13, would be permitted to attend GSMST. She picked up her phone, spending the next 45 minutes texting everyone she knew.
Amie Sakmar had her moment too. She gave a thumbs up, silently beaming from her seat in the middle of the auditorium. Her daughter, Mallory, 14, would be a member of GSMST's 2012 freshman class.
And Hamdan waited.
He and Hassan waited for their moment: a single slip of paper to decide whether they spent the next school year together or, for the first time, apart.
Three hundred forty-nine numbers had been called. Hamdan slumped in his chair, elbows on his knees. The Hassans, elder and younger, watched the boy, bittersweet.
The woman at the microphone leaned in. She plucked a final slip of paper from the squeaky, golden cylinder.
His brain registered the moment in a tenth of a second, and Hamdan was on his feet.
Hassan leapt up, high-fiving his best friend.
While Hassan and Hamdan celebrated, others exited the building quickly, their children following behind them. Not everybody could be a winner.
Royston and Marci Hodge shook their heads, but they were optimistic about their daughter's next year of school. Because 14-year-old Destiny's number was not called Monday, she will likely attend Central Gwinnett High School. She wanted to go to GSMST, with an interest in a forensic science career.
The Hodge family, however, embraced the fairness of the process.
"Everybody has an equal chance," said Royston Hodge. "It is fair. That's all you can say about it."Mathews, the principal, said that "although it can be a frustrating selection process, it's a win-win situation for students in general just to be in Gwinnett County schools."
The charter lottery admission system is one used widely across the United States.
At GSMST, it's the largest group of students who have ever applied to the charter school.
Last year, there were 611 applicants, and the school accepted 300 of them as the freshman class.
After first opening in 2007 with its first freshman group of students, GSMST graduated its first class in May 2011. The school is located in Lawrenceville.
The local school district has five charter schools, including Maxwell, GSMST, New Life, Ivy Prep and the online campus.
All system charter schools operate under a law that if there are more applicants than slots available at the school, then a lottery process must decide who attends.