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Navigating the system: Washington, DC

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By Hank Pellissier

For a pretty penny, plenty of privates

For families who can afford it, DC has about 300 private schools, including exclusive (and expensive) institutions like Sidwell Friends School, a "Quaker values" K-12 school that President Obama’s daughters attend, and the Maret School, also K-12, which was established more than 100 years ago by three French sisters. Maret, located on 7.5 acres of historic land, emphasizes diversity in its curriculum: 40 percent of students and 31 percent of teachers are non-white. Our Lady of Victory, a Catholic K-8 school, was recently named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.

Applying to private school is typically time-consuming and usually requires recommendations, transcripts, interviews, mandatory school visits, tests, and scholarship applications. To make the process a little easier, many private schools accept common recommendation forms if your child is applying to more than one school. You can download the forms at Independant Education, an association of independant schools.

Private school admission schedules vary, but most applications are due in December or January, and acceptances are rolling. To learn more about DC private schools, check out individual school websites; Independant Education and the Association of Independent Maryland and DC schools are also good resources. To find out more about Catholic schools in the DC area, go to the Archdiocese of DC website.

How to land the right school equation: lots of luck + perserverence

As DC parent Alden Nouga’s experience shows, luck plays a major role in the quest to find an ideal DC school.

"I ranked my top six choices for traditional DCPS schools," Nouga explains. "Plus, I applied to about 10 charters. We got into a nearby traditional school that was our number two lottery choice. But then, two weeks later, we got into two charters, Inspired Teaching and Two Rivers. Two Rivers is the one that we are going to go to."

Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast. Alden was aided by an enormous amount of luck, as she freely admits: “There were 32 spots available at Two Rivers, but 20 were taken by sibling preference. So, out of 1,800 applicants, we got one of the 12 open spots for new families. My baby got in! It felt like winning the lottery — for my second daughter, too, who is only a month old, because she'll get into Two Rivers too, because of sibling preference."

Sibling preference is a crucial factor at many of the most desirable schools. E.W. Stokes offers language immersion in either French or Spanish, but it had no openings for the 2013-2014 seasons, Nouga reports, because "all the spots there got gobbled up by siblings."

But Nouga's not complaining, because she knows many families who didn’t get any of the schools on their list. Some of these disappointed families plan to send their children to private preschool and try again for a kindergarten spot in a public school the following year. Those with kids who are on the younger side plan to hold them back a year, and try again.

Abandoning all hope is another choice, Nouga acknowledges: “Some of my friends are considering leaving DC and moving to Virginia and Maryland."

Many DC parents find the school search process too tricky to tackle on their own. Nouga, for one, was "coached" through the DC application process by a professional school placement advisor, E. V. Downey of Downey School Consulting. In a recent interview, Downey offered tips for finding your ideal school:

  • Cast your net wide — apply to as many traditional and charter schools as you can.
  • Don't overlook the "undiscovered gems" in your area — that is, charter or traditional schools that may not yet be wildly popular, but have a good administration, rising test scores, and an active parent community
  • Don't be afraid to "go with your gut." Listen to your intuition on what you feel would be the best fit for your child.
  • If you're wait-listed at a school you really want, introduce yourself to the school staff, and let them know you’re committed to sending your child there if a spot opens up.


The last tip worked wonders for Rachel Papantonakis, GreatSchools’ development coordinator. “My daughter got into one of the traditional [public] schools and six of the 15 charters we applied to, “says Papantonakis. "We enrolled her at one of the charters and it was fine, but not great. I emailed the principal of our number-one choice, and told him I really wanted our daughter to go there. Two days into the school year, we got a call from the principal saying there was an opening. We jumped on it and we've been happy ever since."

To help in her search, Papantonakis talked to other parents, consulted GreatSchools and FOCUS, a charter school advocacy group, spent time on each school’s website, and attended many open houses. For a parents' perspective, the website DC Urban Moms and Dads offers information and a forum where parents can compare notes, get support, and grouse if they need to.

Learn more about education in the nation's capital: Amanda Ripley, author of the bestselling book, The Smartest Kids in the World, shares her personal story of how she chose a school in DC. 

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer on education and brain development, and the author of  Brighter Brains: 225 Ways to Elevate or Injure Intelligence. He is also a SAT and SSAT tutor and director of the Brighter Brains Institute