Photo by Zdenko Zivkovic on Flickr.

All DCPS schools and most charter schools have agreed to a common enrollment lottery that will take effect for school year 2014-15. The new process will cut down on duplicate applications and student reshuffling at the beginning of the year. Why, then, have some charters opted not to participate?

For years now, observers of the DC education scene have been calling for a unified enrollment process, either for all charter schools or for both charters and DCPS schools. The benefits seem clear: parents will be able to file a single application and rank schools in the order of their preference. Schools will no longer find students leaving in September as they get into other schools off waiting lists, or simply decide they would be happier at another school where they also secured a spot.



But when the deadline for joining the common lottery arrived at the end of September, a dozen charter schools were missing from the list. The charters who are participating account for nearly 90% of charter slots, but the ones who opted out include some highly sought-after schools, such as Washington Yu Ying and Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB). Clearly, some parents will continue to apply to those schools separately, in addition to or instead of applying through the common process.

A fact sheet on the unified lottery, dubbed My School DC, explains the procedure, although some details are not yet finalized. Parents will be able to apply online to as many as 10 to 15 schools, including both charter and DCPS options, listing them in order of preference. Families can submit applications beginning on December 16, and there are two different application deadlines: February 3, 2014 for high school applicants, and March 3 for all others.

Each applicant will be given a random lottery number. A computer algorithm will then match each student with one school, using the random number to break ties when a school is over-subscribed. The student will be wait-listed at any school she listed higher than the one she gets into. A second round of the lottery will follow sometime in May, for those families who didn’t participate in the first round or didn’t get matched.

The lottery website itself has limited information right now, albeit in 6 different languages, but it does include a list of participating schools. Sujata Bhat, project manager for My School DC, says that more information will be available in a few weeks.

Schools that opted out

GGE contacted 10 of the schools that have opted out of the lottery to ask them for their reasons and got substantive answers from 4 of them. Their explanations vary.

St. Coletta PCS chose not to join because it serves a highly specialized population. The school focuses on students with intellectual disabilities, often in conjunction with other serious problems. According to Sharon Raimo, the school’s CEO, 20 to 25% of the students are in wheelchairs, and many have tracheotomies or suffer from seizures.

The school would prefer to take only students who need its services the most, but as a charter school it’s required by law to take all comers. Joining in the common lottery, Raimo says, would only compound the problem.

"Someone could choose KIPP and have us as a back-up,” Raimo says. “That’s just crazy.”

At least one other school is worried that joining the common lottery would mean losing students to schools like KIPP DC, a high-achieving charter network.

Patricia Ragland, the enrollment coordinator at Tree of Life PCS in Ward 5, said the school draws many of its students by word-of-mouth or because their siblings are already enrolled. The school’s executive director decided not to participate in the unified lottery because it would have made it easier for families to find other options, Ragland said.

Ragland specifically mentioned the risk of losing students to KIPP and Two Rivers PCS, both of which have recently won bids to open new charter schools in Ward 5. The Public Charter School Board has ranked both of those schools in Tier 1, its highest category, while Tree of Life falls into Tier 2.

LAMB and Yu Ying

The other two schools that responded, LAMB and Washington Yu Ying, expressed general support for the idea of a unified lottery but decided to hold off on participating.

As for LAMB, a Tier 1 school in Ward 4, its Executive Director, Diane Cottman, said in an email that the school is “hesitant to join a system that has not yet been finalized.”

"With a more cautious approach,” she wrote, “LAMB hopes to avoid the uncertainty that comes with a work in progress.”

But, as project manager Bhat points out, DC is not the first city to implement a unified enrollment lottery.  Denver and New Orleans have had similar programs in place for several years, and New York has instituted a common application system. And the same company that designed all three of those systems, the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, is designing the one in DC. Newark and Philadelphia are also working on plans for common lotteries.

Yu Ying, a Mandarin-immersion school that this year had over 1000 applicants for 40 available slots, was more specific about its reasons. Cheri Harrington, Yu Ying’s chief operating officer, said the school would prefer a screening device on the website that would narrow down choices based on a list of preferences. A parent could check boxes, for example, indicating that he’s looking for a Montessori program in a particular neighborhood, and the website would display a list of schools meeting those criteria.

Harrington says that every year a few parents apply to Yu Ying without realizing, for instance, that the preschool program is conducted entirely in Mandarin. A unified lottery might result in more such confusion.

But Bhat says that the website will include a feature that allows parents to specify criteria such as which grades a school serves, where it’s located, and what special programs it offers, including dual-language programs. She says that the design of the website has been driven by what the schools want, and that no school other than Yu Ying had expressed interest in a more granular screening system.

Other school districts that have tried common lotteries have also found that some charters opted out. Only Denver has 100% participation, and according to its superintendent, that was a tough sell. Charters tend to prize their autonomy and may fear that joining a unified system will erode their distinctive character.

But schools can also benefit from joining, and not just by reducing the September waitlist shuffle and the overhead involved in processing applications. They can also reduce the suspicion that they’re manipulating their own lotteries by “cream-skimming,” either by making it more difficult for parents to apply or by selectively calling applicants on the waitlist.

Still, it’s cause for celebration that the overwhelming majority of DC charter schools have opted into the unified lottery this year. And let’s hope that even more will sign on in year two.

We've just launched our brand new website and are working out some kinks. Find something that looks like a bug? Please help out by sending us an email with the details!

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools.