Getting into the School Lottery Game

A District not-for-profit helps parents negotiate the school application process

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Keisha Campbell is a single mother of twins entering kindergarten this year. She also has a teenaged son and a time-consuming job as an operating room coordinator. A few weeks before their application was due, she says she hadn’t even thought about what schools she was going to apply to for the twins.

So, when a staff member at the public charter school Apple Tree Parklands told her about DC School Reform Now (DCSRN) and its services, Campbell got in contact with the not-for-profit to start the school application for the twins. In the spring, Campbell’s twin Kendon was matched to Shining Stars Montessori Academy, and her daughter Kharis was offered a place at the school as well, after spending a month on a waiting list.

Campbell says that her busy schedule did not allow her to invest the kind of time in the application process that she otherwise would have. “You want to do what’s best for your child,” she said, “and they helped me be sure I was doing that.”

DC uses a single common application process through a system called My School DC to allow parents to take advantage of choice among District public schools and most public charter schools. Students can rank up to 12 schools in preferred order and are then placed at participating schools through a single, random lottery process. The lottery considers the number of available spaces at each school, lottery preferences such as the presence of siblings and proximity to the school, how schools were ranked in the application, and the student’s random lottery number.

The common lottery is supposed to simplify the process for families. However, DCSRN Executive Director David Pickens says the common application process can be overwhelming – and he knows from firsthand experience. “I’m so grateful that I had one of my advocates helping me through the process,” he said. “It’s just so much, you don’t have time to keep track of it.”

He adds, “Many of our families are in the kind of situation where having one less thing to worry about – a thing that we know is so incredibly important – is huge.”

DCSRN is a privately funded organization that works with families to help them navigate the common application process. Its primary program, the High Quality Schools Campaign (HQSC), is designed to provide support to District residents, particularly those in underserved communities, as they go through the school choice process.

The organization reaches out to families through schools, community organizations, and visits to apartment buildings and homes. Those who express interest are matched to a parent advocate. Up to 18 advocates are trained every year, although only eight will be selected to work with families.

Advocates help guide parents through the process, from selecting a list of schools to filling out the application and completing the enrollment process. In addition, DCSRN offers a variety of other resources, including parent-focused materials, in-person and virtual school tours, out-of-boundary and public charter application support, school enrollment support, and follow-up.

Pickens says that DCSRN is at the forefront of this type of work in the District, and possibly in the nation. “There’s not a lot of organizations out there like ours that really just work regularly with parents for free.” School choice and the platform to access it are great innovations, but many people need assistance to understand how to use the common application, or lottery, process. “If you don’t have an organization providing this kind of support,” he said, “only some people really have school choice.”

Lamont Harrell is in his second season as a DCSRN parent advocate. He says parents want different kinds of support for both process and knowledge about the schools and their offerings. “A lot of parents don’t know that they have a choice besides the neighborhood school,” he notes. “We open parents’ minds to higher performance options that are going to open doors for their children, raising their expectations for their child’s school career.”

Parents appreciate the depth of knowledge from the DCSRN advocates. Jana Lemons moved back to the District after serving with the Navy for several years. She knew that she wanted her son Chase to go to a diverse school as well as one with good after-school programming. She did a great deal of research herself, but when she saw a flier advertising DCSRN’s services, she decided to use them.

Her parent advocate provided in-depth knowledge about the various schools, their locations and their facilities, and helped her balance factors such as after-school programming, commute time, and age of facilities in her rankings. The advocate was a “second support system, really making sure that I was marking everything and making the best suggestions for my list.”

Chase started this year in the newly renovated Watkins Elementary, and so far things are going very well. “My son actually loves going to school, though of course it’s only been a week. He was struggling the last few years,” she says. “I’m very excited about the results.”

While DCSRN’s offices are located in Northwest, parents do not need to travel there. Harrell does most of his work with parents by phone or text, making occasional visits to homes or places of work when necessary. “We never turn people away,” he declares. “We will help them. They might not get the ‘soup to nuts’ treatment, but they’ll get resources and we’ll give them advice.”

Pickens says they try to recruit about 1,200 families. They still have spaces available for parents who would like to be assigned an advocate for the 2018 school lottery.

If you would like more information about DCSRN and its services, call 202-315-2424, send an email to info@dcschoolreform.org, or visit dcschoolreform.org.