DC’s Awesome Pre-K Program: What working moms need to know


I’ve lived in the District for nearly two decades and when I was a childless singleton I saw DC’s free Pre-K program (combined with charter schools) as a tool to keep middle-class families in the city. I can remember former neighbors who moved in as hip young couples and moved out not long after the pregnancy test was positive. Later, that trend slowed down and parents were giving the city a chance as the Pre-K program grew with more local public and charter school options. Families were staying longer, and I know a few who have stayed long enough for their daughters to enter high school. Now as a mom I see the Pre-K program with new eyes, I see it as a way to save money on daycare. Our son will be eligible for the 2020-2021 year for Pre-K3 and I’ve been researching and talking about our options and strategies with my spouse.

DC’s Pre-K and working moms

Last year a report from the progressive Center for American Progress came out about the 10 year impact DC’s free Pre-K for all had on working women. The general consensus was that it allowed for more workforce participation of women, especially single and lower income moms. What the free Pre-K for 3 and 4 year olds provided were options for working moms and moms who wanted/needed to return to work.

Quick and dirty guide to DC’s Lottery for Pre-K

Even if the plan is to attend an in-boundary public school, you still must enter the My School DC Lottery for Pre-K slots.

  • Common lottery for DC Public (DCPS) and DC Public Charter schools
  • Children eligible for Pre-K 3 or Pre-K 4 must be 3 or 4 years old by September 30
  • Parents can apply to as many as twelve schools
  • Parents should rank the schools in order of preference because students will not be waitlisted for schools ranked lower than a matched school
  • One application per child
  • Free to all DC residents regardless of household income

There are a few charters, like LAMB, and some other institutions that offer Pre-K (I’ll mention those later) that have their own lottery and system. As a few of my co-workers discovered, space is not always guaranteed at their neighborhood school, especially if the school is already or beginning to experience overcrowding. In one way, this is a wonderful sign that more people are giving their local public school a chance. On the other hand, there is a neighborhood kiddo out of luck. DCPS does have a few Early Action PK schools where in-boundary students are guaranteed a seat, but these are exceptions to the rule. Remember don’t stress out about the lottery.

Have a safety school

As I mentioned, some of my co-workers did not get their neighborhood in-boundary Pre-K 3 program and they had to pay another year of daycare fees. This was a heads up for me, as I was assuming my son’s neighborhood school would be his safety school. The schools, like my co-worker’s, west of our in-boundary school are experiencing some of the high-demand pressure, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable that those pressures would move in an eastward direction.

So, I’ve started seriously thinking about safety schools. My reasons are strictly personal and wouldn’t reflect other parents’ values and situations. I believe in a good commute, so I’m looking at all the schools that offer Pre-K along our regular commutes or in walking distance from our house. Two-Rivers PCS is theoretically in walking distance from our house, but it is one of those schools with the thousand kid waitlist, and more importantly, getting to it involves crossing Dave Thomas Circle and the ROAD OF DEATH, commonly known as New York Avenue.  No, one of our safety schools will be a less sought after neighborhood charter school with a Pre-K waitlist less than 20 kids.

Another safety school, and an option I keep leaning towards, is the Community Based PK Options- Enhanced PK Program, where our current daycare is a participant. There are child development centers (CDC) all over the city participating and at least one in every ward offering this free Pre-K programming. Some schools provide more information and applications on their websites, and some, like our daycare, does not. This may be part of your strategy when picking a daycare because it looks like alumni get preference.

Beware of Before & Aftercare

Thankfully I have a flexible work schedule and a spouse who has adjustable work hours, but not everyone has flexible hours or someone to help with pick up or drop off. Most schools offering Pre-K have regular hours of 8-ishAM to 3-ishPM. This does not cover getting the kid(s) to school(s), a commute to work, a full eight-hour workday, and getting back to the school for pick up. Some schools offering Pre-K have before and after care, sometimes only one, sometimes both. The earliest I’ve seen is 7AM and the latest around 6-ishPM, which would give a decent amount of coverage when weekday work schedules are hard but are in the 9 to 5 window.  When choosing a school, working parents should check to see if before and or after care is available.

Before and aftercare programs typically aren’t free, it varies. According to the DCPS website, aftercare is $850.50 annually for 9 months. Checking out several schools’ websites, fees varied wildly. There are schools providing discounts for before and after care combined, a second child, or have a sliding scale.

Summer, Spring and Winter Breaks are different kettles of fish that I haven’t completely figured out. Unlike daycare, schools keep a school schedule and are closed for certain periods of time. There are parents who use these breaks to travel and then there are other parents who don’t have that much annual leave or can’t afford leave without pay.

We are truly blessed to have Pre-K options and to have so many education choices for our son as DC residents. There are tools such as the My School’s School Finder, to help make the choices a little less overwhelming. 

Row of Crayola crayons
Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash


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