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With New Lottery, D.C. Helps Parents Navigate School Choices

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My School D.C. is the city's new common lottery, allowing parents to apply for multiple schools in one go.
My School D.C. is the city's new common lottery, allowing parents to apply for multiple schools in one go.

When they started looking for a preschool for their three-year-old son last year, Genevieve Martinez and her husband did what many parents in D.C. find themselves doing: research.

Unhappy with their assigned public school, the Columbia Heights couple opted to apply for out-of-boundary public schools and charter schools. They attended open houses, perused the tables at a charter school expo and created a spreadsheet ranking their preferred options.

"First, it was scouting all the schools — you prepare your typical Excel spreadsheet with all the list of schools and ranking them and all the information you can find — and we just started going to open houses like crazy, talking to friends and neighbors, and applying to as many schools as possible," she says.

They ended up applying to 15 schools, all of which had different applications and deadlines. It was enough to cause panic and anxiety attacks, they admit. And they weren't alone: only one-quarter of D.C. public school students attend their in-boundary school, and 43 percent of students opt for charters.

This year, things are different. D.C. has for the first time rolled out a common lottery for both public and charter schools, allowing parents to apply for the schools they want their children to attend using a single application.

"The way it works is parents go to one place, myschooldc.org, and can put in the information for their child or children one time, select up to 12 schools that they're interested in the children attending, and then that's it. They don't have to go to each of the different individual charter schools and submit individual applications," explains Abigail Smith, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education.

She says the common lottery not only saves parents the stress of keeping track of different applications and deadlines, but also gives schools some peace of mind in knowing who will be attending. In the past, she says, parents would apply to multiple schools and remain on multiple wait-lists until they could decide which school was best. The so-called "wait-list shuffle" made it difficult for schools to know exactly who they'd be enrolling in the next school year.

“The lottery will take into account a parents’ preference as to which school they most want to go to, and try and maximize both the number of kids who get a seat at a school and the number of kids who get a seat at a school they really want to be at. So the idea is you make better matches. That makes families happy, and it makes schools happy," she says.

So far, says Smith, 7,500 people have applied with the common lottery, which uses an algorithm designed by a Nobel laureate to sort students based on the preferences indicated by their parents. The deadline for high-schoolers is on Monday, and for all other students on March 3. Lottery results will be made public on March 31.

Despite making the process easier for Martinez, she says it still feels like a gamble — there aren't enough high quality schools for the amount of parents applying for them.

“It’s not like you have a choice. It’s not like you’re going to sit around with several options and say, ‘Oh, I’d rather go to school A than school B because they have a better meal program.’ No, it’s whatever the lottery tells you. So even the open houses, the researching too much gives you the illusion of choice. When you in reality don’t have that many choices," she says.

Smith concedes that many D.C. parents are fighting for a small number of coveted seats at high-performing schools, but that the common lottery brings some order and ease to a process that was much more fragmented in the past.

"While we’re working towards that goal of making all schools of a quality that all parents would feel comfortable, we also want to ensure that until we get there, access to those choices is really available to everybody so that we don’t have certain families who are more able to avail themselves of the options than others, and we think that the common lottery can really help level the playing field for that," she says.

Until that happens, Martinez says that she's happy that she won't have to submit multiple applications again.

“I think once you have one system, one website and all the information is there and it’s clear and you have links to all the schools and to all the information, it makes the process very easy for the parents," she says.

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