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.)
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.
Though Angela was committed to pursuing a public education in DC, many other parents opt out of the public system all together. Washington boasts about 300 private schools ranging from an affordable $4,000 per year at parochial schools up to over $32,000 per year for places like Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama’s daughters go. Applying to private school is typically more time consuming, with recommendations, transcripts, interviews, mandatory school visits, and application fees to accompany the regular forms. Private school admission schedules vary, but most applications are due in December or January, and acceptances are rolling.
One year before a child starts school, parents’ time-management skills are put to the test. In the fall, parents need to start researching schools and attending open houses to determine public, charter, and private school options. In early winter, private school applications are due. By February, you’ll determine your top six out-of-boundary schools for DCPS’s lottery. And in early spring you’ll start submitting charter school applications.
“It’s a lot to navigate,” says Natanya Levioff, program director for GreatSchools in DC. “On the first day of PRE-K, parents should be thinking about [choosing a] kindergarten. On the first day of eighth grade, parents should be thinking about high schools – or even before.” Hence, GreatSchools’ DC School Chooser, a printable guide to choosing a school in the nation’s capital, comes out in October to help parents get a jump start on the next academic year.
“Everyone tells you to go to open houses,” Angela says. She did. In addition, she researched each one on GreatSchools and looked for any school rated 8, 9, or 10. She joined Facebook groups to get an idea of the parent involvement. She googled every school and checked out their websites. She took a lot of time off from work, a business which she runs from home. For parents with conventional 9 to 5 jobs, such extraordinary efforts are not only difficult but well-nigh impossible.
Angela’s efforts went beyond the definition of the super mom. She hosted an informal living room meeting with her neighbors. Then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee attended, sharing advice on the out-of-boundary lottery and discussing the merits of some of the district’s unsung schools.
When Angela received the news that she’d been waitlisted at all five of her out-of-boundary choices, she followed DCPS’s post-lottery advice: She reached out to each individual school — every day. “I called the principals at first,” she says, “but I quickly realized the registrar was the one I wanted to talk to.” Finally, when she learned that there was a spot at the PRE-K at her fifth choice school, she leapt at the opportunity.
Despite the school’s great rating, it didn’t turn out to be a good match for her son. The school had no parent-teacher organization (PTO), no newsletter, no website, and parents seemed disengaged. “It’s a wonderful school,” she says, praising her son’s teacher in particular, but Angela wanted more. She referred back to the 2009 Post article, which outlined three ways to get into public school. The first option, the lottery, had failed her. The second option was to ask the principal to help. She began appealing directly to the principals at her top four out-of-boundary choices, where she was still on the waitlist. But everyone said the same thing: “You’re too far down the list.”
Referring back to the article, Angela tried the third and final option: She made a direct plea to Chancellor Rhee for help getting her child into one of her top four choices. Luckily, it worked. By the end of September — more than a year after Angela began her school search — her son was enrolled in one of her top-choice schools.
After working so hard to get her son into a good school, Angela says her story isn’t all that unique. “Everyone I talked to, it was the same story. Everyone was 100 percent dedicated to their [chosen] school, worked very hard, spent a lot of time — and eventually got in.”