It’s almost February, and for DC parents it means one thing: DCPS School Lottery. Chances are that if you are reading this post, you are on the same boat or close to reaching the school-age mark. By now, you probably have been to at least one open house, school fair, lottery mixer or even had a private consultant. This process is all too familiar for me. It has been a rollercoaster, with initial disappointments, followed by some really good luck, finishing up with moments of anxiety over making the right decision on what school to choose. All of this has left me with one simple piece of advice: Don’t panic, it will be ok!
Having a young child in DC comes with a unique set of experiences and challenges. Expensive daycares with long wait lists, expensive nannies, challenging nanny shares and for a lot of us no immediate family nearby. But it also gives us a luxury that is only available in a few other areas: a chance for free PreK-3 and PreK-4. A lottery based Universal system. But with the school uncertainty, a lot of people move to the suburbs for a guaranteed spot. My advice as a city lover is simple, hang in there until at least Kindergarten. Just take it one day at a time and don’t go crazy with the overflow of information.
You have probably done extensive research. There are a great number of available resources when it comes to information about schools. The centralized page by the lottery is a great start, then come all the open houses and opportunities to meet with other parents. There are also private consultants that for a considerable fee would help you rank your schools, but with no other real advantage. Chances are that by now you are torn between language immersion, high academic achievement schools or Montessori schools. You probably already have a list of cons and pros for each, a map for commute routes and have taken a big dive into the world of online forums. But to be honest, every child is different and you will hopefully find what best fits your child’s personality. It is ok to be nervous, as we face one of the most important parenting decisions so far. But honestly, it’s not that bad and it will eventually work out.
The number of applicants for PreK-3 are very high. According to DCPS “The greatest demand continues to be in pre-kindergarten grades (ages 3 and 4) with waitlists across DCPS totaling 10,891 applications.” Waitlists are long and sibling preference makes highly sought after schools seem like a dream. New schools keep popping up and others are expanding in order to keep up with the high demand. By Kindergarten things get a little better. Although there are fewer spots and the number of applicants is still high, chances are that a lot of parents are just playing the lottery (and don’t truly want a spot at the school) unless they get a spot in their top school. School waitlists will then move much faster than they did for the lower grades, especially after the start of the school year. From talking to many other parents the possibility of getting to a school of your choice is much greater in upper grades (even for those cases with bad lottery numbers).
Advice and Expert Tips for the DC School Lottery
In the spirit of making things easier and hopefully make the process less stressful, I talked to some experts and parents to gather a list of things to keep in mind as you move forward:
- Visit your top choices. This can help you get a better feeling about the school. Work with your intuition.
- Think about your child. Is a small classroom a better fit? Do you think he will be ok on a bigger campus? What about self-directed learning?
- Meet the teachers on your grade level and hopefully one above. Get a sense of teacher retention. Does your child need stability or would changes be ok?
- Meet other parents. Get a sense of whether the school is highly competitive, fast-paced, or laid back.
- Consider diversity, in the school as a whole and on higher grades. Is this important to you?
- Are you willing to play the lottery again and change schools in the future?
- Are you ok with a long commute, able to move or just want a neighborhood school?
- Check out the schedule. Do they offer before and aftercare? Do you need to apply separately?
In conclusion, hang in there and take it easy on yourself. After all, having such a wide range of options is a luxury. Now, there are extreme cases, very special needs and extraordinary circumstances that might make your experience different and more challenging. But for the majority of us, it will work out ok!