We visited 18 schools in 90 days in D.C., and this is what we learned.
Parents all over Washington, D.C., are awaiting the results of the public school and public charter school lottery, which are expected to hit in boxes Friday. The anxiety level is high. For months — and in my case, years — parents have been poring over school data, researching curricula, visiting school buildings to meet with principals, teachers and parents and asking questions of other parents on listservs, on the playground and at community meetings throughout the city. We all want to get our children into the “best” school that is the “right fit.” And it all comes down to putting together a list of 12 schools in ranked order in the hopes that our lottery number and/or other preferences will get our children into a school we actually want to send them to.
As a former education reporter, I found this process both intriguing and maddening. I’ve covered extremely challenged school districts like the one in Paterson, New Jersey, where the state took over the district in 1991 and only in 2014 started to return part of the business of running the schools back to local control. And I have seen some amazing schools and districts in New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Maryland. Much of what I learned as a reporter about covering schools — and by this, I mean really covering the schools themselves, not just the administrators or school board officials — I learned by going into schools and classrooms and actually witnessing learning taking place (or not).
So I applied that experience to our quest for the “right” school for our 3-year-old son, which meant creating a master Google spreadsheet with every school we wanted to visit and all of the dates of the planned open houses and tours. My husband and I visited most of them together but also had to divide and conquer a bit when a work meeting or volunteer obligation prevented us from attending as a couple. All in all, we visited 18 schools from late November to late February. We put together our final list of 12 schools in the last few days before the March 2 deadline.
We focused most of our attention on the preschool programs at each of the public and charter schools we visited, but we also inquired about the older elementary grades as well, since we ultimately would like to go to one school and stick with it. After all of those visits, I figured I’d share what we learned, both about the process and about some of the schools in the nation’s capital.
But before we get started, a few caveats (especially for those out-of-towners — D.C. residents, feel free to skip below): There are two main lottery applications for schools in D.C. — the one for preschool (starting at age 3) up to eighth grade and the one for grades 9 through 12. We entered the lottery to get a spot in the preschool program for 3-year-olds. Not all 3-year-olds or 4-year-olds are guaranteed a spot in a school, even in the school they are zoned to attend. Only in kindergarten is there a secured spot for students in the District. But once a student gets into a school, he or she can stay in that program up through the end of the school even if the school is not one he or she is districted to attend. The charters have open lotteries, and the only preferences they give are to siblings and children of their staff (we found the latter in some but not all the charters we visited). The public schools have the same sibling preference, as well as for students who are “in bounds” for their school.
Now, on to what we learned, in no particular order:
1. There are some amazing schools in the District of Columbia. Really amazing. Yes, it’s an urban district with lots of unevenness and inequality — some painfully obvious — but there are many schools that are thriving and excelling. For example, one of the first schools we walked into was Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, and I was very impressed with what we witnessed. From the outdoor garden to the music class, it felt like a warm, friendly building where children would grow and be challenged.
2. But for all my excitement at places like Peabody, I did wonder aloud to my husband, “Why can’t all of D.C.’s kids go to a school like that?” The inequities of the system are real. Some of them are due to old buildings or school leadership that doesn’t demand and provide excellence or general poverty or parents who aren’t or can’t be more involved in their children’s education or a whole host of other issues all combined. But it still hurts to know that not every child can go to the excellent schools that the District has to offer.
3. PTAs are providing enormous amounts of extra funding and other types of aid to schools throughout the District. Many of the schools we visited have signature fundraisers that they put on every year in the hopes of buying a new kiln, supporting a gardening program, updating the school library, etc., etc. This is both invigorating and frustrating. It’s wonderful to see parents come together to support their children’s education, and I expect one day that we will be heavily involved with our son’s school’s PTA. But what about parents who don’t have extra money or extra time to give? What happens to schools without those extra resources? How can we as a city support ALL schools with resources for the arts as well as for writing, reading, math, social studies and science?
4. Demand for the city’s language immersion schools is high and only growing, as many parents want to see their children gain valuable skills and knowledge about other cultures in this globalizing world. We are keenly interested in these schools and this model of teaching and ended up putting many of these schools near the top of our list, even though the chances of getting in are so thin. I hope District leaders — and others throughout the country — pay close attention to this demand and find ways of trying to meet it.
5. At both charters and publics alike, we often heard the refrain of “Our school is more difficult to get into than _______________,” where the blank was filled in with the name of the Ivy League school du jour. Some of these elementary schools receive hundreds if not thousands of applications, with just a few spots to fill. (We tried our best not to even entertain the idea of going to places like Brent Elementary, where it seems a family must win the actual lottery to afford a house that is in bounds for the school.) The largest number of seats for incoming 3-year-olds that we saw was in the low 60s. Most were in the 20s and low 30s, and that is before the schools take into account the sibling and other preferences. After hearing about the difficult odds, parents in the open house sessions murmured and whispered among themselves. And at the end of the sessions, these same administrators would smile and say, “We invite you to apply for our school and to put us in the No. 1 spot.” While inviting to hear, it also made us wonder whether some schools are trying to goose the numbers of applications, so they can continue to tout their desirability to future parents.
6. School data — or the lack thereof — can make you start to twitch. My husband, a statistician, eagerly dove into the data that he could find about the results of past lotteries to help us figure out where we’d have the best chance of getting in. (We have no sibling or other preferences for 11 of the schools we chose, and we put our zoned school, which is still struggling to find its way, last on the list.) But even with all his expertise, we still couldn’t get a great grasp on the numbers because many of the charters don’t supply that information. And that’s just the information about the lottery. We had to ask basic questions at every school — publics and charters alike — about things like whether there is a full-time school nurse, whether there is a separate library in the building with a dedicated librarian, etc. For the most part, all of the public schools had these things, but many of the charters did not (especially the newer ones). Regardless, we shouldn’t have had to ask for this information. All of these things should be made available publicly in a place where everyone can peruse and compare easily and quickly. No one should have to go into a school building to figure out these basic things.
7. About the charters: Overall, of the charters we visited, we believe they are offering a solid education and a caring environment to students. It’s unfortunate that the public schools don’t have the flexibility to do similar things, but there are great schools of both types. However, I firmly believe that if the charters receive public money they must be just as accountable and transparent to the residents of the District and their children as the public schools. It was dispiriting to hear one charter administrator speak with some level of hubris as if her school answered to no one, least of all the parents of the children in her school. (That only happened at one place we visited, thankfully.) We as parents and citizens in the District should demand more transparency from the city and Congress about the charter schools whose budgets come, at least in part, from our tax dollars.
8. The whole process of visiting schools is heavily weighted in favor of the wealthier residents of the District. My husband and I both took off time from work — which we later made up in various forms of working late or on weekends — to attend the open houses. We are grateful that our jobs allowed us the flexibility to do so. Only some schools offered visits after working hours. For anyone who works a job on a shift or with little flexibility, visiting these schools would not have been an option. The schools need to do a better job of finding other ways to open their doors to potential parents.
9. The entire experience of preparing to make our list of 12 schools became rather emotional at times, even with our intentions of sticking to the data and trying to dispassionately compare schools on a variety of measures. When I mentioned earlier that I had started my research years ago, I wasn’t exaggerating. I went to a public meeting more than three years ago when my son was barely 6 months old about the school system and the lottery, and I’ve been watching ever since how the lottery has changed and the school boundaries have shifted. So I guess it should have been no wonder that I had a lot of pent-up anxiety about the lottery that flared up intermittently — usually right after a school visit when my husband and I were comparing notes — once we were going through it ourselves.
10. Through all of our visits and research, I kept coming up against the whole idea of the “school choice” movement. Yes, we did make choices about which schools to put on our list. Yes, with the charters and publics taken together, the city offers a variety of different models and philosophies. (We really liked the Montessori schools, for example, but they aren’t for everyone.) And yes, there are some truly excellent schools in the District. But ultimately, our ability to get into those schools is mostly due to chance, not choice.