Lottery image from Shutterstock.
Parents all over DC are awaiting the results of the city’s annual lottery to get into public schools and public charter schools, which are expected to hit inboxes Friday. The anxiety level is high.
My husband and I entered the lottery to get a spot in a preschool program for our three-year-old child. Not all 3- or 4-year-olds are guaranteed a spot in a school, even in the school they are zoned to attend. Only in kindergarten is there a secured spot for students in the District (and for preschoolers in five low-income areas as a pilot program).
That means applying to multiple schools in hopes of getting into one. For months or years, parents like us have pored over school data, researched curricula, visited school buildings to meet with principals, teachers and parents, and asked questions of other parents on listservs, on the playground and at community meetings throughout the city.
We all want to get our children into the “best” school that is the “right fit.” And it all comes down to putting together a list of 12 schools in ranked order in the hopes that our lottery number and/or other preferences will get our children into a school we actually want to send them to.
Here is some of what we learned about the process and about some of the schools in DC.
Lotteries are enormously competitive. At both charters and neighborhood schools, alike, we often heard the refrain of “Our school is more difficult to get into than (insert the name of the Ivy League school du jour).” Some of these elementary schools receive hundreds if not thousands of applications, with just a few spots to fill. (We tried our best not to even entertain the idea of going to places like Brent Elementary, where it seems a family must win the actual lottery to afford a house that is in bounds for the school.)
The largest number of seats for incoming 3-year-olds that we saw was in the low 60s. Most were in the 20s and low 30s, and that is before the schools take into account the sibling and other preferences. The lottery gives preferences to the siblings of students already at the school and, in some schools, children of the school’s staff.
After hearing about the difficult odds, parents in the open house sessions murmured and whispered among themselves. And at the end of the sessions, these same administrators would smile and say, “We invite you to apply for our school and to put us in the No. 1 spot.” While inviting to hear, it also made us wonder whether some schools are trying to goose the numbers of applications, so they can continue to tout their desirability to future parents.
There are some amazing schools in DC. Really amazing. Yes, it’s an urban district with lots of unevenness and inequality — some painfully obvious — but there are many schools that are thriving and excelling. For example, one of the first schools we walked into was Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, and I was very impressed with what we witnessed. From the outdoor garden to the music class, it felt like a warm, friendly building where children would grow and be challenged.
The inequities of the system are real. Why can’t all of DC’s kids go to a school like Peabody? Some schools have old buildings, or school leadership that doesn’t demand and provide excellence, or general poverty, or parents who aren’t or can’t be more involved in their children’s education, or a whole host of other issues all combined. But it still hurts to know that not every child can go to the excellent schools that the District has to offer.
PTAs are providing enormous amounts of extra funding and other types of aid to schools throughout the District. Many of the schools we visited have signature fundraisers that they put on every year in the hopes of buying a new kiln, supporting a gardening program, updating the school library, etc., etc. This is both invigorating and frustrating.
It’s wonderful to see parents come together to support their children’s education, and I expect one day that we will be heavily involved with our son’s school’s PTA. But what about parents who don’t have extra money or extra time to give? What happens to schools without those extra resources? How can we as a city support ALL schools with resources for the arts as well as for writing, reading, math, social studies and science?
Demand for the city’s language immersion schools is high and only growing, as many parents want to see their children gain valuable skills and knowledge about other cultures in this globalizing world. We are keenly interested in these schools and this model of teaching and ended up putting many of these schools near the top of our list, even though the chances of getting in are so thin. District leaders — and others throughout the country — should pay close attention to this demand and find ways to meet it.
School data — or the lack thereof — can make you start to twitch. My husband, a statistician, eagerly dove into the data that he could find about the results of past lotteries to help us figure out where we’d have the best chance of getting in. (We have no sibling or other preferences for 11 of the schools we chose, and we put our zoned school, which is still struggling to find its way, last on the list.)
But even with all his expertise, we still couldn’t get a great grasp on the numbers because many of the charters don’t supply that information. And that’s just the information about the lottery. We had to ask basic questions at every school — publics and charters alike — about things like whether there is a full-time school nurse, whether there is a separate library in the building with a dedicated librarian, etc.
For the most part, all of the public schools had these things, but many of the charters did not (especially the newer ones). Regardless, we shouldn’t have had to ask for this information. All of this should available publicly in a place where everyone can peruse and compare easily and quickly. No one should have to go into a school building to figure out these basic things.
The charters we visited are offering a solid education and a caring environment to students. It’s unfortunate that the public schools don’t have the flexibility to do some of the things the charters can, but there are great schools of both types. However, I firmly believe that if the charters receive public money they must be just as accountable and transparent to the residents of the District and their children as the public schools. It was dispiriting to hear one charter administrator speak with some level of hubris as if her school answered to no one, least of all the parents of the children in her school. (That only happened at one place we visited, thankfully.) We as parents and citizens in the District should demand more transparency from the city and Congress about the charter schools whose budgets come, at least in part, from our tax dollars.
The whole process is heavily weighted in favor of wealthier residents. My husband and I both took off time from work — which we later made up in various forms of working late or on weekends — to attend the open houses. We are grateful that our jobs allowed us the flexibility to do so. Only some schools offered visits after working hours. For anyone who works a job on a shift or with little flexibility, visiting these schools would not have been an option. The schools need to do a better job of finding other ways to open their doors to potential parents.
An organization called DC School Reform Now has been making videos, or “virtual school tours,” to address this problem. There aren’t a lot of videos yet, though, and it’s not going to close the gap entirely.
DC doesn’t really offer “school choice” today. Yes, we did make choices about which schools to put on our list. Yes, with the charters and publics taken together, the city offers a variety of different models and philosophies. (We really liked the Montessori schools, for example, but they aren’t for everyone.) And yes, there are some truly excellent schools in the District. But ultimately, with so many people competing for few spots, our ability to get into those schools is mostly due to chance, not choice. Rather than being a process of choosing what’s right for one’s child, the current lottery is mostly about hoping that child can get into any good school at all. An expanded version of this article originally appeared on Medium.