A child in DC's Early Childhood Education system. Image by DCPS Communications licensed under Creative Commons.

DC’s public school system guarantees pre-kindergarten education for all three and four-year olds. But to enroll their children, families have to apply for a seat through a lottery system. And unlike kindergarten and beyond, children don’t always get to go to the school closest to them. Here’s how the lottery works, and some tips on how to navigate it.

Where to start and what you need

For DC public schools lottery, parents can choose a lineup of up to twelve public and charter schools, with your top choice being #1 and your last choice being #12. An algorithm will then attempt to match kids to schools based on the number of available spots, proximity to the school, and preference (your lineup from 1-12).

DC’s lottery for the public school system (“public school” meaning both traditional and charter schools here) opened on December 12. Whether you’re a veteran of the system or a beginner, the first thing you need to do is set up an account with My School DC so that you're in the system. You'll have until March 1st, 2017 to submit your final line-up (the deadline for high schools February 1st).

Learning about the schools

After you've set up your My School DC account, it's time to begin scouting out the schools and programs that you think will best fit you and your child. There are two main ways to learn about the schools and the programs they offer.

DC Public Schools (DC Public Schools meaning DC's traditional schools) each teach based off of four different types of curricula when it comes to Early Childhood Education (ECE):

  • Tools of the Mind: focuses on intentional self-regulation learning through structured play and role-playing.
  • Montessori: child-centered free play in a structured environment, set up to teach specific age-appropriate skills.
  • Reggio Emilia: based off of a child's natural development and their relationship with the environment around them.
  • Creative Curriculum: focuses on positive interactions and relationships with adults; social-emotional competence; constructive, purposeful play; relationships to the physical environment and teacher-family partnerships.

There's more information about the schools and the curricula they offer here.

One way you can learn about prospective schools and get a more detailed rundown of these programs is by attending open houses. This is where parents can get a first hand experience of the school and hopefully tour some the pre-K classes in session.

Since the open houses are small and intimate, it's one of the best ways to get a feel for the school. Also, anyone can attend an open house but many schools require that you RSVP, so make sure you've done so before you drop in.

Another thing you could have done was attend EdFest, is a good way to interview a bunch of schools in a short period of time and learn about types of ECE curricula they offer. It’s always on the weekend, meaning it’s a good fit for a lot of working parents. 2016’s EdFest has come and gone, but it’s certainly worth keeping on your radar for next year.

What you should ask your prospective schools

When interviewing prospective schools, it helps to have some basic knowledge of ECE programs as well as a few questions related to instructional style and discipline. Each school will explain their curriculum, but when you hear them for the first time, they may sound both great and like a foreign language.

Besides curriculum, there are some other questions new parents should ask that will help you make your decision.

I’d recommend asking potential schools about their discipline philosophy- do they focus on positive or negative reinforcement? Do they punish children or use disciplinary infractions as opportunities for learning and development? How do they treat children who get into trouble frequently?

Another thing to ask the school is how much nap time they provide their pre-K kids. Some schools offer anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, while others only give their kids 45 minutes to an hour to rest.

Lastly, you'll want to know how much of a school’s curriculum offers play and exercise. This seems like an obvious element to pre-K education but some schools, depending on the type of curriculum they offer, will allow more time for structured free-play and general exercise.

How to rank your schools on the lottery form

You can choose up to twelve schools with the lottery algorithm attempting to match you to your top choices. While the lottery is random, there are a few factors that can play into your child getting into a school over someone else.

For pre-K, incoming students with older siblings at a particular school will get preference over other students. Being in-bounds (in a your local school district) or out-of-bounds (not in the local school district) also matters. If you're in-boundary for an early action school, you'll be guaranteed a spot if you put that school anywhere on your lineup. 

So the major factors to consider when ranking your schools are:

  1. The number of available spots at a particular school.
  2. How many of those spots go to younger siblings (sibling preference).
  3. In-boundary vs. out-of-boundary. Once a child hits kindergarten, parents only have to use the lottery to get their kids into out-of-boundary schools. Many of the most highly rated schools in DC have relatively few spots open to out-of-bounds students, as lots of parents put them high on their list.

Aside from having a sibling in one of these schools and/ or being in-boundary (for kindergarten and beyond), getting into a highly-rated school school is almost impossible; it's more like winning the lottery.

Schools like Brent Elementary, for example, only have a few open spots for out-of-boundary kids, with most of their available spots being taken up by younger siblings and in-boundary kids (for kindergarten).

Instead of shooting for the moon on all your top choices, look for schools with increasing test scores, an active PTA, and a really involved faculty. Often times, good schools like these, or schools that will be great in a few years, are overlooked.

Once you have all the information you need about the schools you like, it's time to fill out your lottery form. When filling out your rankings, there are two final things you need to keep in mind:

  1. Rank schools in order of your true preference to increase your chance of getting matched to your top choices— meaning, you should rank the schools in the order you prefer them, regardless of your chances getting in. However, if you like a school that has a lot of open lottery spots, but isn't one of the top schools, rank it higher on your list so that you have a better chance of getting in.
  2. Remember that there is no advantage to applying early.

After being matched to a school, all the choices below your matched school will be dropped, with schools above it being waitlisted. For example, if you get matched to your third ranked school, schools one and two will be waitlisted with four and below being dropped.

The last bit of paperwork to fill out before the first day of school

After setting up your account and figuring out how you want to rank your schools, there's a basic checklist of documents you should obtain before the first week of school.

The three of the big ones on the list are the Universal Health Certificate, the Immunization Documentation, and the Oral Health Assessment form. All three may take a few weeks to get, but taking care of them before the school year will mean less hassle during the first week of school. Doctor's offices become very busy towards the end of summer so it may take them longer to fill out these forms, and remember to check with the doctor's office after about ten days, as they sometimes forget to fill out the forms or lose them.

Good luck on your lottery picks! I'm sure I'll be back soon with more advice on the lottery.

Matthew Koehler is currently a stay at home dad who formerly worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan and Washington, DC. When not chasing his three-year-old daughter around, he chronicles he fathering experiences in blog form and is always on the look out for obscure beers. For the time being, he resides in the ever-changing Southwest neighborhood, just down the street from Nationals Ballpark.