The Common Lottery Two Years Later

Is It Working?

photo: Andrew Lightman

Back in the Dark Ages, aka Before Common Lottery, the school application process was confusing and probably unfair. It favored families with better resources and allowed children to gain simultaneous admittance to multiple schools. Then, in the fall of 2013, the Common Lottery was introduced. The new system brought nearly all public and charter school applications under a single roof.

Every student in the city has an In Bounds (IB) school at every level from kindergarten through 12th grade. While they are guaranteed entry to their IB institutions starting at kindergarten, a Common Lottery application still is required to obtain admission into any District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) pre-kindergarten 3 (PK3) or pre-kindergarten 4 (PK4) program. Applications to most charter schools, at any level, require use of the Common Lottery as well. A single form now gives  families the opportunity to send their children to charter schools with programs that match their needs or to DCPS schools, either IB or not.

 

The Common Lottery

Under the Common Lottery almost all DCPS and charter schools use a single application. Parents create a family account at www.MySchoolDC.org for all of their children for whom they are applying. The site also provides large amounts of information about schools: open-house dates, number of spaces being offered, and links to other websites with information about the schools along with links to specific school websites.

After using the MySchoolDC site and other resources, and visiting schools, families start listing their schools of interest on their applications. Each student can apply to up to 12 schools, in any combination of public and charter schools. After the challenge of narrowing it down to 12 schools, the even bigger challenge is ranking the schools in order of preference.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the rankings and what they mean. Lottery spokespeople stress that families should rank schools solely in their order of desire to attend each school. That is good advice except that some other factors may come into play. There are some schools at some grades into which a particular child will not gain admission, despite being ranked as first on the child’s list. Families should also consider logistics and a long-term trajectory when ranking schools. The perfect school for your child may well not be 45 minutes of twice-a-day-hideous-rush-hour-traffic away.

 

An Improvement?

The once free-for-all process is now streamlined into a unified system. In last year’s Common Lottery approximately 17,000 applications were received, with 71 percent of students matched with a school; 85 percent of the matches got one of their top three choices. The numbers rose for this coming school year. With over 20,000 applications, 72 percent of students were matched to a school, and 86 percent of those matching gained a spot in their top three choices.

The process remains stressful. Waitlists are growing. Charter school lists increased 18 percent. DCPS lists grew 25 percent. When the first-round results for 2015-16 were released, 8,500 children were on waitlists for public charter schools and 7,000 were on waitlists for public schools. Parents of three- and four-year-olds, in particular, face a shortage of seats at higher performing schools.

A few top charter school choices opted out of participating in the first year of the Common Lottery. Washington Yu Ying School ran its own lottery. Waitlists were ordered according to the time stamp on the applications, and parents camped out overnight to try for the best possible time. By 3:00 a.m. there were over 60 people in line.

Top choices such as Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan had 367 names on the waitlist for PK3 when the first-round results came out this year. Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle had 348 names. The hugely popular Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School had 448. At Brent Elementary School on Capitol Hill there were more applications for siblings of current students than spaces for PK3. Families of these students are faced with having children in multiple schools. In-bounds families absent siblings are not likely get into the school until kindergarten, when they are guaranteed admittance.

Parents of older children also face stresses. They actually had lower chances of being matched with a school. While 87 percent of PK3 children were placed, the rates dropped as children got older. At PK4 the rate was 65 percent; 62 percent for kindergarten; 82 percent for fifth grade; and 83 percent for sixth. The rate for high school, a time when most students move from one school to another, was a frightening 80 percent lottery placement for the 2,747 hopeful applicants.

 

The Verdict

Yes, applications and waitlists are increasing. However, one can interpret that as a sign of the overall success of the Common Lottery. Without a doubt the new system is much more accessible to families from all backgrounds. It can still be confusing, but MySchoolDC has employees and volunteers who are available to answer questions, not to mention the very useful website. Outreach efforts in less privileged neighborhoods mean that MySchoolDC staff have been out in the community with laptops on which residents may submit applications. Every DC public school and library must allow computer access to the public and assistance in navigating the website. This serves the planned purpose of helping residents from different backgrounds explore school options they might not have known about.

The streamlined system allows parents to understand the system and feel that it is relatively straightforward, even if their children do not get placement in a top-choice school. There are still issues. For example, a rule puts round 2 in-boundary applicants on the waitlist above round 1 out-of-boundary applicants. This results in round 1 kids moving down the waitlist in the wrong direction, leading many parents to wonder if something unfair is happening. However, MySchoolDC is running the waitlists. The website permits families to see their up-to-date status on each list, which encourages a feeling of confidence in the system.

The Common Lottery has made some significant improvements in the first two years of its existence. The website has steadily added information, and it is easier to obtain answers to questions about unusual situations. Still, most parents look to friends, neighbors, and even professional help to navigate the system confidently.

Ward 6 Board of Education Representative Joe Weedon, cautiously optimistic, calls the Common Lottery “a huge step in the right direction.” Weedon would like to see more equity in the way in which public options are presented in general, feeling that more focus goes to the charter schools. “Speaking as a parent with a fourth-grader, it was disappointing not to hear a lot about DCPS options, but rather to hear about the charters,” he adds.

Now all that remains is improvement in all of our schools. Ideally, in the future the Common Lottery will provide the opportunity to choose only among equally good schools with different program offerings.

E.V. Downey is the principal educational consultant at Downey School Consulting, where she consults on public, charter, private, and special-needs school choices and issues. She started consulting after years of teaching children of all ages and working in private school administration. A graduate of DC Public Schools, E.V. lives on Capitol Hill with her husband and two children.


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