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Navigating the system: Washington, DC

Scoring a primo school in the nation’s capital can seem as daunting as erasing the national debt. Yes, it’s tough, but these insider tricks just might save you.

By Hank Pellissier

The pressure's on! You live in Washington D.C., vortex of power, neural cortex of the nation. calls DC "America's brainiest place to live" because the percentage of college graduates is nearly twice the national average. People around you ponder important ideas all day long. It’s the ideal place to raise your bright children, right? You just need to enroll them in a top-notch school.

Alas, this task can seem as formidable as erasing the national debt. The Capital's public school district has a mediocre GreatSchools Rating, and the high school graduation rate is an anemic 58 percent. If you think that’s bad, things could get even worse: DC schools are facing massive budget cuts that will eviscerate programs and staff.

That’s not all: school stress for parents starts early in the nation’s capital because DC has universal preschool. (In 2008, the DC Council unanimously passed legislation to make PreK available to all 3 and 4-year olds by 2014, and today it is the most comprehensive PreK program in the U.S.)

"The public preschools feed into elementary schools, which feed into middle schools, and then high schools,” explains DC parent Alden Nouga. “To obtain a good placement, parents start researching schools soon after their child is born."

Public schools in DC: where location is destiny

Based on their DC address, parents are guaranteed a kindergarten spot for their child at their neighborhood "in-boundary" school. Unfortunately for many parents, the neighborhood school may be less than ideal.

Parents who want their child to go to an "Out-Of-Boundary" school must brave the new My School DC lottery, which includes all DCPS schools and a majority of the district's charter schools.(In late 2013, the DC Deputy Mayor for Education, in partnership with DC Public Schools (DCPS), the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), and charter Local Education Agencies (LEA's)  launched, a common lottery process. The new process allows DC families to apply DCPS PK3/PK4 programs, DCPS out-of-boundary schools, DCPS specialized high schools, and participating charter schools through one online application.)

To participate in the lottery, parents pick 10-15 schools ranked in order of preference. Families seeking seats at the few charter schools that are not participating in My School DC should apply at each school and participate in individual lotteries. (Remember that If your child attends an elementary school as an out-of boundary student, he'll qualify for that school's feeder, or "destination," middle and high schools, so the quality of these destination schools should be a factor when you're creating your school wish list.)

The process isn't for the faint of heart: there's no guarantee your child will end up with any of the schools on your list. DC’s highest performing schools, like Stoddert Elementary and Eaton Elementary, two PreK-5 schools boasting high GreatSchools Ratings, have the longest waiting lists. A child seeking admission to popular schools like these are likely to be assigned an astronomical number on the waiting list. (As in many cities, DC’s highest performing public schools are located in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.)

Other DC schools with high rankings include Janney Elementary, Hyde-Addison Elementary, Mamie D Lee Elementary, Key Elementary, Oyster-Adams Bilingual (grades 4-8), and Benjamin Banneker High School. Upper grade schools include Deal Middle School, McKinley Technology High School, and School Without Walls High School, a small, demanding college preparatory school that "launches students on a quest to find personal meaning from their studies," according to the school’s website. Other innovative schools include Ellington School of the Arts, which offers a rich variety of art programs, from dance and theatre to instrumental music and museum studies; and Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School.

Many schools have open houses each year or participate in school fairs, and this is the best way to get a sense of a school's quality and climate. Go to individual school websites for open house dates. School enrollment forms and due dates are available on My School DC for those schools participating in the common lottery, or on individual school websites.

A wealth of charters, a paucity of spots

DC also boasts a thriving charter school movement. Each charter has its own local education agency (LEA), which is a sort of mini school district. There are over 50 LEAs in DC, with many operating multiple schools and performance varying widely. (GreatSchools lists 109 separate DC charter schools). DC charters don’t have to admit every kid, and if there are more applications than seats available, enrollment is determined by lottery, either individually or in conjunction with My School DC. With the advent of the common lottery, dates are consistent. Applications will become available on Dec 16 and are due on Feb 3 for high school applicants and March 3 for PK-8 applicants. Non-participating charter schools and private schools may have varying deadlines.

In the charter system, there are a number of schools with stellar GreatSchools Ratings: Edgewood Elementary, Edgewood Middle School, KIPP KEY Academy (Grades 5-8), KIPP AIM Academy (Grades 5-8), Latin-American Montessori Bilingual Elementary, Achievement Preparatory Academy (Grades K-8), St. Coletta Special Education (PK-12). Yu Ying (PreK-4), which offers Mandarin immersion, also ranks high. 

Washington DC’s charter schools offer a variety of unique programs. Washington Latin for grades 5-8 provides what it calls a "Classical Education for the Modern World," with Latin required every year; Friendship Collegiate Academy offers AP computer science classes and their Collegiate Early College Program for motivated students.

To find out more about  DC charter schools, check out the DC Public Charter School Board website, which provides a list of all charter schools, as well as performance information.

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