At the D.C. Education Festival, parents shopped for schools from over 100 traditional and public charter school options.
Chiquita Garris walked from booth to booth in a cavernous hall at the Washington Convention Center during Saturday's D.C. Education Festival, speaking to teachers, administrators and volunteers from charter and public schools from across D.C. The fact-finding mission was meant to serve a purpose: her daughter is ready to enter high school, but Garris isn't pleased with the in-boundary options she faces in her Southeast neighborhood.
The marketplace of educational options in D.C. was on full display at the festival, where thousands of parents perused elementary, middle and high school options from over 100 schools located across the city.
The festival, which is put on by the D.C. Public Charter School Board, is one way that D.C. is helping simplify the school-shopping experience. And for the first time since the festival started five years ago, this year traditional public schools joined their charter counterparts in pitching themselves to parents.
"D.C. has more choice in public education than almost any other city in the country," explained Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. "But to make an informed choice, you need to know about the schools that you're attending. It's not convenient for parents to visit a dozen or two-dozen schools, and so this gives them the opportunity to learn about many school very quickly, very efficiently."
Choice has fast become one of the key principles underlying education reform in D.C. Only 28 percent of students are opting to attend their in-boundary school, and 44 percent have chosen charter over traditional public schools. With new charter schools and programs being introduced every year, the reality of choice — and the desire to offer convenience to families — helped motivate the traditional public school system to join the festival .
"Just think for a second: they had to go to this [fair], then maybe one of ours, maybe two of ours if we had middle and high school fairs. For families, they should go to one place and they should see all the schools," said John Davis, chief of schools at DCPS.
"There always is friendly competition between charter schools and DCPS, but ultimately if you're really thinking about families, just like we have one application process, we should just have one place where they see all the schools," he added.
Garris said that she isn't partial to traditional or charter schools, and that the festival helped her make weigh the options for her daughter.
"We are undecided as to where she's going to go to high school," she said. "We did want to check it out to get more options and get some more information on all the high schools so we could make an informed choice," she said.
The festival took on even more importance this year as D.C. moves towards a common lottery in which parents seeking out-of-boundary or charter school alternatives can rank their 12 top options online, with a computer program weighing multiple factors to decide what school a child ends up going to.
School officials say the new lottery — called My School D.C. — is a big step towards simplifying what was once a long process with multiple application requirements and deadlines.
"We've heard of parents building spreadsheets to keep track of when they had to get their applications in. This year with the common lottery it's one application [and] one set of choices, and the goal is to take what is a complicated process and make it as simple as possible for parents," explained Pearson.
But even if the lottery is simple, the process of choosing — and selling — schools is less so. Parents at the festival picked up brochures and peppered teachers and administrators with questions about programs and performance. For the schools, there was also an element of marketing and salesmanship involved in making the pitch to parents.
"I feel like with all of the charter schools, especially the ones in the same area, the tables are more for advertising," said Kourtney Purham-Belton, a teacher at Dunbar High School who was using the school's ninth-grade academy and science, technology, engineering and math program as a selling point.
"Some people know about Dunbar, they've heard about it, but once they get to the table we have to really be able to state the facts and information. We have to promote the school."
For Kim Batts, who lives in Northwest D.C. and was searching for school options for her middle- and high-school-aged daughters, all the choices available at the festival are a net-positive for parents. "I prefer to have the choices, so that we can shop around and see what's the best fit. I figure if there's more choices, there's a better fit," she said.
The lottery deadline for high school is Feb. 3, and Mar. 3 for pre-K to eighth grade.