Navigating the system: Washington, DC
Looking for a school in the nation's capital? Here's where to start.
Learn more on what to look for when touring schools in these videos:
Video: How to find a middle school
Video: A guide to private schools
By Jessica Kelmon
It all started when Angela’s son was in diapers. She read an article in the Washington Post about the only ways to get into a “good” public school. From that day forward, Angela was on a mission. “I forwarded that article to my mom,” she says. “I told her this was how I’d get my son into school.”
Since that moment, the single, working mother has been ensconced in “lottery land,” the DC public schools’ (DCPS) out-of-boundary public and charter school enrollment process.
Angela researched school performance stats and GreatSchools ratings, attended 15 open houses (some great, some that she simply had to “walk out on”), and built a school metrics matrix – a spreadsheet to track all of her data. She volunteered at school improvement days, made contacts at the district office, and attended the education chancellor’s speaking engagements.
Angela won a hard-fought battle to gain entry into one of the capital’s renowned public schools. She prevailed, but it was a struggle. (After going to such great lengths, she requested that we withhold her last name and her son’s name to make sure her child’s spot at school isn’t jeopardized.)
DC’s many school options
The neighborhood public school is the first place most parents begin their school search. Based on your address, you’re guaranteed a kindergarten spot at your local school. But for many parents – especially those not living in more affluent neighborhoods – the assigned school may not live up to their expectations.
For parents seeking to enter schools outside their zone, there’s a lottery process, which for many parents begins in preschool. (If children can gain access to the right preschool which funnels into the right elementary, middle and high school, their parents’ school choice work is done.) Every February, parents pick up to six schools — ranked in order — for the lottery, but there are no guarantees. In the beginning of March, parents receive enrollment results in the mail. For Angela, the lottery results were a tremendous blow: She was waitlisted at all five of the schools she listed. At her top four schools, she was more than 100 spots down the list. At her last choice, Barnard (GS rating 7), she was #11 on the wait list.
DC also boasts a thriving charter schools movement, with each charter school acting as its own local education agency (LEA) — like its own mini school district. There are just over 50 LEAs in DC, but many of these operate multiple schools and performance varies widely. Since each LEA has its own application and deadline, it’s crucial to research each charter school in advance of applying. Typically, charter school applications are due in March or April. In contrast to neighborhood public schools, DC charters don’t have to admit every kid. If there are more applications than seats available, then enrollment is determined by lottery.
Angela applied to six charters and gained admission to one — Center City (GS rating 8) – not one of her dream schools. Still, Angela considered it a decent back-up, at least for a couple of years. “I thought ‘we can live with it,’” she recalls. But her search wasn’t over.