The New Common Lottery

Understanding how it works

Brent hosted six middle school representatives for its Middle School Information Night.

A lottery should be fun, at least the dream of winning big, but betting on what school your child will attend next year is no fun at all. Previous to this year, families applied to public schools and charter schools separately, with different applications.

This year almost all DC Public Schools (DCPS) and DC Public Charter Schools (DCPCS) came together in the Common Lottery. The new system was implemented as a way to simplify applications for Prekindergarten 3 and 4 (PK3 and PK4), Out of Boundary (OOB) spaces, and charter schools. is a one-stop resource for information about the process. The website includes detailed school profiles as well as the application. The goal is to make the process simpler for families and reduce the amount of wait-list movement, especially in the fall after school starts.

When Do You Use the Common Lottery?

Every domicile in the District has a designated In Bounds (IB) school for each grade. Starting at Kindergarten (K), a student is guaranteed a space at their IB school. Families must submit an application in the common lottery any time they want to:

  • obtain a new space for PK3 or PK4, even at their IB school;
  • attend a new charter school;
  • switch to an OOB school;
  • apply to an application-only school (high school). 
  • This means that the common lottery is used for kids from PK3 through 12th grade.

School Preferences and Application Timeline

Each student can apply for up to twelve schools in any combination of public or charter. The schools are ranked by preference, from greatest interest to least interest. Preferences such as IB status are automatically given by the system. You can input other preferences such as a sibling enrolled.

The application dates for this coming season have not yet been announced, but should be roughly December through February. Parents should visit schools of interest this fall and winter. Planned tours are listed at Narrow down your list and submit the application. 

There is no benefit in submitting the application earlier in the process. Results will be available around late March at, and via e-mail and mail. will also have information about individual wait-lists. Students can get a space in only one school. Any school that was ranked above the school that has offered a space will give that student a wait-list number. At any school below, the student will not be on the waitlist and no longer has a possibility of getting a space. 

It is possible to get “shut out,” that is, not get any space at all.

Families have roughly one month to make additional visits to schools and do further research before accepting their spots. To accept a spot, families must submit the enrollment papers (mailed by the school) and show proof of residency at the school by the designated date.

School Selection and Ranking

The common application was created to prevent parents 'gaming the system.' However, there are several factors that can help you make a more successful list. Practical issues should come first: commute times and family schedules; your student’s academic, social, and behavioral needs; the kind of student diversity you would like. 

A successful list should contain four to five “reach” schools, three to four middle-range schools, and three to four “safety” schools. If you prefer to stay at a current school or childcare setting rather than attending anything other than a reach school, your list can be made up of only those. You can apply to fewer than twelve schools.


If you do not care to accept a spot that is offered, simply notify the school so they can offer it to someone else. You will remain on the wait-list for any schools above the school at which you were offered a space. 

The wait-lists will start moving in May and will move throughout the summer. Schools will offer you a space via phone call or email. You will be given a deadline by which to decide. You can request an additional visit to the school if needed. If you choose not to take that space, you will still remain on the other wait-lists.

Round Two

The new lottery offers a second round for those who didn’t get in anywhere or didn’t do the first round. Round Two is identical in procedure to Round One.

Round Two students will be added to the end of the Round One wait-list with the exception of those with preferences. Those students will be added to the waitlist according to their preferences. 

How Does the Lottery Actually Work?

The lottery is run by a complex computer algorithm. Each applicant is randomly given a unique lottery number for his/her grade. The lottery then runs school by school. As each school for which a student has applied comes up, the student is placed on the school’s list. 

The school list is ordered according to preferences (IB, sibling, etc.) and then lottery number. So an IB student whose lottery number for PK3 is 1,000 is placed ahead of an OOB student whose lottery number is 500. The better your lottery number, the better you will do across the system, but the lottery number will not trump preferences. 

The position in which you rank a school will not change your chances of getting in. That’s why you must rank more highly preferred schools first. If you don’t and get in to a less preferred school, you will not even be wait-listed at the more preferred school.

Has The Lottery Been a Success?

The lottery has increased the availability of information about schools and has made the application process significantly easier for families. Wait-lists have been moving a lot which is either a good thing -- families are getting spots at schools they really desire -- or a bad -- a lot of people initially didn’t get spots that they really wanted.

The biggest goal of the new system is to decrease the “September Shuffle,” students moving to another school after school starts. The September Shuffle is hard for families and schools alike. It remains to be seen this fall whether movement has been significantly decreased.

So go out and buy a few lottery tickets and then start your research. Good luck!

Spanish Immersion Teacher Ms. Paul, working at Tyler Elementary through a partnership between DCPS and the Spanish government

E.V. Downey is the principal educational consultant at Downey School Consulting. Each year she works with hundreds of families navigating the public/charter school lottery process, applying to private schools, and advocating for special-needs kids. She has taught children of all ages for almost two decades and came to educational consulting after several years in private school admissions. Her experience in special education advocacy started with years of struggling to get a decent public and later private education for her autistic son. A graduate of DCPS, E.V. has one child in private school and another in DCPS.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.