Photo by Zdenko Zivkovic on Flickr.

The new common application and lottery system for DCPS and most charter schools has launched its website. You can’t apply or enroll yet, but you can start learning about how the process will work.

The website, My School DC, is being rolled out in three phases: Learn, Apply, and Enroll. Families will be able to apply to schools through the site beginning December 16. There are two different deadlines for applications: February 3, 2014, for high schools, and March 3 for preschools through 8th grade.

Families will find out which schools they’ve been matched with and where they’ve been wait-listed on March 31. They will have until May 1 to enroll, which they’ll do directly through the school rather than through the website.

Sujata Bhat, project manager for the system, says there’s no advantage to applying early and urges families to take time to consider their options. School profiles on the site provide basic information and links to other sites with additional information. The profiles also list dates for schools’ open houses.

All in all, 193 schools are participating in the common process. That includes all DCPS schools and all but a handful of charter schools. Families applying to one of the non-participating charter schools can also apply to other schools through the common system.

Parents who want to send their kids to their “as of right” school don’t have to apply through the website. Starting in kindergarten, students have the right to attend the DCPS school whose boundaries include their address.

In some cases, elementary schools feed into middle schools and high schools that don’t draw from the same boundaries. Students also have the right to attend schools within their “feeder pattern,” even if their addresses fall outside the schools’ boundaries.

Also, any child who is currently enrolled at a school can remain there without submitting an application through the website.

But families need to apply through the website if they want their children to attend:

  • participating charter schools
  • DCPS schools that aren’t within their boundaries or feeder pattern
  • DCPS PK3 and (if not already enrolled in the school) PK4 programs
  • one of the 6 DCPS specialized high schools

The goal of the common system is to help ensure that as many students as possible get into schools they want to attend. Families can list up to 12 schools in order of preference, on a single application, and each student is assigned a random number.

A computer algorithm then tries to match the student with her first choice, then her second choice, and so on. If the student gets into her fourth choice, for example, she’ll be waitlisted at her first, second, and third choices.

The system should make the application process simpler for families and make it easier for them to find schools they want. The website lists all 193 schools alphabetically, but it also has boxes that can be checked to narrow the search.

For example, parents can search for schools in a certain ward that serve first-graders and offer dual language programs. They can also search by school name or by address.

The common process should also make things easier for schools, especially charters. Some schools have experienced a “September shuffle,” with students leaving and arriving as they get into schools off waiting lists. Some families have accepted offers from more than one school and then switched after a week or two.

Preferences and specialized schools

The lottery won’t be completely random. Some schools offer preferences to certain applicants, such as siblings of current students. And some DCPS schools offer preferences to non-“as of right” students who live nearby, including applicants for PK3 and PK4. Those preferences will be respected in the lottery.

In addition, students applying to one of the 6 specialized DCPS high schools will need to satisfy the school’s individual requirements before gaining admission. For example, a student applying to Duke Ellington School of the Arts would need to successfully audition before being entered into the lottery for the school. The application deadline for high schools is a month earlier than for other schools to allow time for students to satisfy these eligibility requirements.

Bhat said that she and others working on the program will be doing their best to get the word out and explain how to use it in the coming months. They will be training DC government employees at libraries, community centers, and other agencies that come into contact with parents.

While there is no cell phone app for the website, it’s designed to resize itself to display properly on a smart phone. However, Bhat recommends that families use a computer to fill out the actual application.

It’s also possible to enroll over the phone by calling a hotline. Translators will be available for non-English-speakers. The website itself is translated into 5 languages other than English.

Once they’ve submitted an application, parents can log back into the system and change their choices at any time before the deadline. Bhat also urges families to log back in if their contact information changes.

A second round of the lottery will be held for families who either missed the first round or didn’t get into any of their first-round choices. But Bhat warns against waiting until the second round to apply, since many slots will already have been filled, and round two applicants will be behind others already on waitlists. In addition, families who received a match in round one will not be eligible to participate in round two.

The My School DC website generally appears easy to understand and user-friendly, given the complexities of school choice in the District.

Some charter schools that opted out of the common system expressed doubts about participating in a program that’s untested. But Bhat and her team have been working with the Institute for Innovation in Public Choice, which has designed common application systems for several other school districts.

The chair of its board is Alvin Roth, a Harvard economist whose specialty is designing matching programs such as My School DC. Last year he won the Nobel Prize for his work.

So while there’s no guarantee that the application and lottery process will go smoothly, it comes with a pretty good pedigree. And it’s almost sure to work better than the system, or lack of system, it’s replacing.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.