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Ward 5 resident and DCPS graduate Sarah Jackson entered the My School DC lottery this year, hoping for an outcome much different from her prior attempts to secure a proximate and quality public education for her daughter.

But when the lottery results were made public last week, Jackson’s fears came to fruition. Her daughter, now a rising kindergartener enrolled in a Catholic school, once again counted among an untold number of children waitlisted by their most preferred school choices.

Currently, 18 candidates stand between her daughter and a highly coveted spot at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in Northwest.

“If we happen to get off the waitlist before October or November, we would consider it,” said Jackson, a federal government employee.

Jackson’s school lottery journey started in 2017 with an unsuccessful bid for a PK3 spot for her daughter at a charter school within walking distance of her house. Jackson’s daughter ended up 300th on the school’s waitlist. In 2018, Jackson’s fortune slightly improved when daughter clinched the 25th spot on her top school’s waitlist.

However, a seat in that building didn’t open until well into the 2018-2019 academic year when Jackson and her fiance had already shelled out Catholic school tuition dollars.

As D.C. parents enter the next stage of the My School DC application process, a period where families confirm or deny placements and wait to move up on waitlists of their top school choices, Jackson questioned her patience for the school lottery system, even with the promise of a free education.

“We might do it again but our daughter is moving along her academic career and I don’t know if I want to uproot her,” Jackson said. “There are a lot of things to consider. It seems like we’re playing a game with our child’s education. All we can go on is prayer.”

Questions about Equity, Strategy

The My School DC lottery system, now in its fifth year, assigns more than 87,000 D.C. residents of school age a guaranteed seat at one of the more than 200 public and public charter schools in the District.

Once applications open in February, families entering an online portal can choose and arrange up to a dozen public and public charter schools they want their child to attend, based on preference. Those who have to participate in the lottery include parents enrolling their children in a public charter school at any grade level, those vying for a spot in a PK3 and PK4 program and families looking at out-of-boundary D.C. public schools.

This process also has relevance for applicants to feeder schools — programs that lead students along a path to specific high schools in the city — and one of the more selective citywide public institutions.

Criteria that boost an applicant’s standing include residency within a public school’s boundary, the current enrollment of a sibling in the school and, in the case of some charter schools, the employment of a parent.

However, even with the best intentions, some District parents remain concerned that the application process further exacerbates educational inequity. For instance, a survey conducted by the Office of the DC Auditor last year found that a little more than 25 percent quarter of respondents, most of whom of European descent, called the My School DC lottery system “very fair,” while 40 percent characterized it as “somewhat fair.”

Data also shows that 65 percent of My School DC applicants last year had been accepted one of the schools of their choice. A little more than half had also been matched with one of their top three selections. Uneven demand across the board resulted in waitlists numbering in the thousands at some of the city’s top-tier charter schools, while students experienced relatively fewer problems applying to the less sought-after options.

On Friday, parents from communities east of the Anacostia River inquired among one another on social media about how to get their children off of the waitlists. Disheartened by their results, some parents lamented the possibility of their child going to an under-resourced school.

These conversations unfolded more than a week after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) revealed her Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal in which 15 Ward 8 schools would lose a combined $10.4 million in funding, a result of dwindling enrollment, a DCPS spokesperson reportedly said.

At the beginning of the academic year, as some charter schools announced their closure for financial reasons and the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) revoked the charters of others, parents at affected institutions scrambled to figure out where to move their child for the school year.

Despite the circumstances, some such as Southeast resident Mywen Baysah warn against haphazard planning. The education professional said navigating the My School DC lottery system requires one to truly think about what they want for their child’s K-12 experience.

Seven years ago, Baysah enrolled her daughter into Kipp DC Douglass Campus, confident that it would provide a solid Ward 8-based education to prepare her budding scholar for the academic rigor of other programs. When her daughter reached the third grade, Baysah transferred her to Ross Elementary School in Northwest, where she’ll complete her primary education in June before possibly moving on to her feeder middle school.

“A lot of parents go for names but they don’t know how to strategically place our children in these schools,” Baysah said as she criticized a mindset that shunned My School DC information sessions and open houses.

For her, increasing the chances of a match means looking beyond STAR ratings and determining the number of expected open seats and high schools that receive students from those institutions.

Maneuvering in this manner, Baysah said, allows for continuity in a child’s education.

“We don’t know how the out-of-boundary seats impact our lottery chances,” she said. “It has to be done away [with]. We’re not having those conversations. We would just ‘click, click, click’ on the website instead of going to open houses. It’s not just about liking a school. It takes a lot of legwork and research.”

Doomed from the Beginning?

Long before the implementation of the My School DC lottery system, parents dissatisfied with their neighborhood school options often went through hoops and hurdles to enroll their children elsewhere. This ongoing phenomenon, dating back at least to the mid-1990s with the passage of the D.C. School Reform Act, continued amid the proliferation of charter schools. The expanding choices brought on a hodgepodge of individual applications, timelines and lotteries.

Those expanding options, part of a school choice movement that caught fire across the country, shifted the distribution of public education dollars to charter schools, at their inception seen as the more viable alternative to D.C. public schools.

For years, as public schools closed and consolidated under DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, enrollment in that sector slowed down as parents increasingly embraced charter schools, especially in the middle grades.

Every year, a per-pupil funding structure brings thousands of dollars to D.C public and public charter schools. As charter schools have grown, so have their operating budgets, eliciting questions of transparency. Unlike public schools, charter schools don’t have to hold open meetings, nor are they obligated to publicize salaries, records, or vendor contracts under $100,000.

In March, weeks after Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy abruptly announced its closure for financial reasons, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced the Public School Transparency Act of 2019. If passed, this bill would require PCSB to send Freedom of Information Act requests to the D.C. Council and publicize employees’ names and salaries.

Since 2009, DCPS has experienced incremental enrollment growth. As matriculation to charter schools slow down at a similar rate, experts predict that both school systems will have an even share of students in the near future. This will come on the cusp of what’s predicted to be an uptick of 12,000 students within the next decade, the Office of the DC Auditor said in a study last September.

Questions about how D.C. public and public charter schools could coexist in such an environment weighed heavily on the minds of panelists at the National Association of Black Journalists’ Media Institute on Education & Health last Friday. As reporters in the Convergence Center of the Center for Total Health listened, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee expressed his desire for cooperation and coordination between the two school systems.

“We do a disservice to our families when we act like the other side doesn’t exist. We can maximize resources through coordinated action,” Ferebee said.

Minutes earlier, fellow panelist Richard Wright Public Charter CEO Marco Clark challenged what he described as a narrative that negatively painted charter schools as private institutions with little oversight.

While allaying his anxiety about subpar accommodations, lack of space for sporting activities, resource gaps and threats of closure, Clark questioned why some D.C. schools that have failed students for decades don’t receive similar scrutiny. Ferebee responded by shifting the focus from school performance to the societal ills plaguing D.C.’s Black and Brown children.

“[We have] one of the largest income gaps in the country,” Ferebee said. “We have some wards with no hospital. We need to frame the conversation about the shifting racial and socioeconomic makeup of our city. We shouldn’t get into this conversation about who’s doing it better.”

Panelist Marla Dean, executive director of Bright Beginnings in Northwest, told the audience that while she didn’t disagree with Ferebee, education leaders missed the mark several years ago by not investing in struggling majority-minority schools.

“We operate in a system that’s meant to be competitive but now we want to be collaborative,” said Dean, a Ward 7 resident. “We need to go back to the basics. Are we OK with kids getting segregated? These are not hard questions. We’re ignoring the real issue. I live in an upper-middle class community and people don’t feel that they have a place to send their kids. It’s still about race.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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