Inside D.C.’s Preschool Lottery

Even with a simpler application, there’s a divide in how parents approach the lottery.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama dances with pre-kindergarten students on May 24, 2013 during a visit to the Savoy School in Washington, DC. Every year, prospective preschool students need to enroll by May 1 to secure a spot in the school to which they have been matched in the citywide lottery.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
May 2, 2014, 9:44 a.m.

Wash­ing­ton’s pub­lic preschool lot­tery can turn oth­er­wise sane pro­fes­sion­als in­to nervous wrecks. Wash­ing­to­ni­an magazine re­cently chron­icled the hys­teria and frantic strategiz­ing the lot­tery in­spires in middle-class par­ents, even though there is very little fam­il­ies can do to in­flu­ence where — and if — their child gets in­to preschool.

Raynette Lind­say, 26, isn’t one of those par­ents. Al­though the pub­lic schools in her neigh­bor­hood have the low­est test scores and highest high school dro­pout rates in the city, she would have been fine with send­ing her daugh­ter, Au­tumn, to the ele­ment­ary school across the street. As for the lot­tery ap­plic­a­tion, which re­quires par­ents to rank schools in or­der of pref­er­ence? “It was really easy,” Lind­say says.

This year, the city rolled out a sim­pli­fied lot­tery pro­cess aimed at put­ting all par­ents on equal foot­ing. But D.C. re­mains di­vided between frantic­ally strategiz­ing, middle-class par­ents and less edu­cated par­ents, who aren’t used to play­ing the school-ad­mis­sions game. Wheth­er you think the Wash­ing­to­ni­an moms are crazy, or Lind­say is, may de­pend on where you your­self are from.

In the­ory, every­one who lives in the Dis­trict of Columbia can send their child to pub­lic or pub­lic charter preschool. But par­ents aren’t guar­an­teed a spot at their neigh­bor­hood school. In­stead, they must sub­mit a list of up to 12 schools to an on­line lot­tery, which uses an al­gorithm to match chil­dren with open spots. In the first round of this year’s lot­tery, 88 per­cent of 3-year-old ap­plic­ants and 67 per­cent of 4-year-olds were matched with a school.

Lind­say’s 3-year-old daugh­ter was one of them. Two days be­fore the dead­line for ac­cept­ing a space, she ar­rived at Au­tumn’s new preschool to fill out en­roll­ment pa­per­work. Ap­ple­Tree Early Learn­ing Pub­lic Charter School’s Douglas Knoll cam­pus is a cheery place, where classroom doors are dec­or­ated with colored-pa­per spring scenes and a vis­it­or might over­hear chil­dren en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally count­ing to 30, in uni­son.

Ap­ple­Tree has sev­en cam­puses across D.C., and the net­work has the data to prove that its schools pre­pare dis­ad­vant­aged chil­dren for kinder­garten. Par­ents who con­sult the school lot­tery web­site, My School DC, would read that Au­tumn’s new school “im­ple­ments a re­search-based in­struc­tion­al pro­gram that sup­ports the de­vel­op­ment of young chil­dren’s lan­guage, lit­er­acy, and be­ha­vi­or­al skills as well as their un­der­stand­ing of the world around them.”

“This is a good school, from what I’ve heard,” Lind­say says, stop­ping in the hall­way on her way to the main of­fice. Douglas Knoll made her list not be­cause of its re­search-based in­struc­tion­al mod­el, but be­cause it was nearby and be­cause a co-ed school (she had also ap­plied to at least one all-girl in­sti­tu­tion) seemed like a good fit for a little girl with a baby broth­er. Lind­say was sport­ing bright sneak­ers and an eye­brow pier­cing, and she car­ried her sleep­ing son, Ashton, in a baby car­ri­er be­side her. His scrunched-up face was vis­ible un­der a knit­ted cap.

Lind­say and her chil­dren live in Ward 8, south­east of the Anacos­tia River, where most people are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, few went to col­lege, and many are liv­ing be­low the poverty line. The un­em­ploy­ment rate there is 17.9 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent city data. Lind­say, a single mom, is cur­rently con­trib­ut­ing to that rate: She was once in a law-en­force­ment train­ing pro­gram, but dropped out be­cause she felt it was selfish to choose a de­mand­ing job over rais­ing her chil­dren.

She sub­mit­ted a list of mostly loc­al schools to the lot­tery be­cause she felt safer keep­ing Au­tumn close. “With pre-K, you’ve got to be right by home,” she says. A D.C. nat­ive her­self, Lind­say was also curi­ous about the city’s pro­lif­er­at­ing charter schools (about 40 per­cent of preschools that par­ti­cip­ated in this year’s lot­tery were charters). “I wanted her to go to pub­lic charter in­stead of pub­lic,” Lind­say says of Au­tumn. “I grew up in pub­lic schools, and I wanted to see the dif­fer­ence.”

This year’s lot­tery was cre­ated, in part, to bet­ter serve par­ents like Lind­say. In past years, pub­lic schools had one preschool lot­tery, and then every charter school also ran its own lot­tery. The pro­cess was con­fus­ing, with mul­tiple ap­plic­a­tions and mul­tiple dead­lines. “Our low­est in­form­a­tion fam­il­ies might not have all the tools and in­form­a­tion at their dis­pos­al to nav­ig­ate the pro­cess,” says Su­jata Bhat, pro­ject man­ager for My School DC. “So the com­plic­a­tions of the pro­cess kind of priv­ileged some sub­set of fam­il­ies.”

Bhat over­saw the cre­ation of a lot­tery with a single, on­line ap­plic­a­tion. Not only does My School DC serve pub­lic preschool ap­plic­ants, it also serves out-of-bound­ary and pub­lic charter-school ap­plic­ants for kinder­garten through high school. There’s a second lot­tery round for city new­comers and fam­il­ies who didn’t match any­where in round one.

Bhat’s data sug­gest that par­ti­cip­a­tion this year re­flec­ted the dis­tri­bu­tion of pub­lic school fam­il­ies city­wide. About 44 per­cent of fam­il­ies at­tend­ing pub­lic school in D.C. live in wards 7 and 8, in south­east D.C., and about 39 per­cent of this year’s lot­tery par­ti­cipants came from that area, Bhat says. To reach fam­il­ies and re­mind them about the lot­tery pro­cess, her team did everything from go­ing door-to-door with iPads to put­ting re­mind­ers on wa­ter bills for city res­id­ents.

The new ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess leaves little room for strategy. Par­ents have to rank their choices care­fully, and that’s about it. Even so, many of the city’s more af­flu­ent par­ents pay for the ser­vices of edu­ca­tion con­sult­ants who, for an hourly fee, will provide a list of ranked schools cus­tom-tailored for their child. Preschool is a par­tic­u­larly com­pet­it­ive lot­tery year be­cause the stakes are high: get in­to the right preschool, and a child can have the right to a feed­er pat­tern of great schools all the way through high school.

So “win­ning” the lot­tery can mean play­ing a long game. If par­ents don’t like their child’s preschool feed­er pat­tern, or don’t like their neigh­bor­hood schools, they can go through the lot­tery pro­cess every year un­til they get their child where they want her to be.

Juan­ita White, ad­mis­sions and trans­ition man­ager at Ap­ple­Tree, says that there’s a big dif­fer­ence between the par­ents at Ap­ple­Tree’s Lin­coln Park cam­pus, near Cap­it­ol Hill, and par­ents in Wards 7 and 8. “They’re on the ball,” she says of the more edu­cated, high­er in­come Lin­coln Park par­ents — already think­ing not just about preschool, but how to man­euver their child in­to good schools all the way through high school. The par­ents in Wards 7 and 8 usu­ally aren’t.

White spends a lot of time at Ap­ple­Tree schools in those areas, co­ordin­at­ing bus trips to area ele­ment­ary schools and en­cour­aging par­ents to get in­volved, par­tic­u­larly by vo­lun­teer­ing at their child’s school. A lot­tery pro­cess in­ten­ded to be fair to all fam­il­ies can only do so much when some par­ents have more re­sources and are more in­ves­ted — some might say ob­sessed — with win­ning the school game.

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