A school enrollment shell game: Conniving or caring parents?

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 9, 2012

We see the evidence every day in our neighborhood: A car with Maryland license plates pulls up to a D.C. school, kids and backpacks and lunch bags spill out, and the parents take off.

Free education in a different jurisdiction. What a deal.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The Calvert County school system caused a stir a few weeks ago by kicking a second-grader — who it suspects actually lives in Prince George’s County — out of a school. The 7-year-old, Sierra Hammond, is now back at Mount Harmony Elementary School after her mother appealed not only the finding but also the way the school system handled the case.

This is an issue that goes far beyond Calvert County.

Some families are indeed gaming the system, taking a spot at a school that is meant for another child and not paying the taxes that support that seat in the classroom. They teach their child deception, telling him or her to say “You live with your aunt,” if they get asked. They pay everything — school fees, lunch plans, field trips — in cash, lest a check give away their address.

They never become truly woven into the community of the school they’re squatting in and have abandoned the school in their real neighborhoods.

These stealth enrollments are acute in my school district on Capitol Hill, which has good schools and is easily accessible by non-D.C. residents. For some, it’s simply a matter of convenience. They work in the city — why not have their kids in the city, too?

In PTA circles, there is frustration with seeing spots being taken from kids who may need them more. But really, what are these families stealing? What is all the lying and conniving and paperwork shell-gaming for?

To get the best education they can for their kids. Can that be a crime? How is it possible that we live in a place where there is an active black market for a decent education?

In one of my sons’ classrooms, the close-knit, sweet little community formed by 22 little kids was stunned sudden when one of their friends stopped showing up. And a little while later, another disappeared without a word.

Their parents were caught.

“Aha,” I remember connecting the dots. Only then did I realized why the lovely mom, who I had daily conversations with each morning, darted away, around the corner after drop-off and didn’t get as involved in after-school activities and outings as much as the others.

She was keeping a secret. She just wanted the best for her child.

Follow me on Twitter @petulad or e-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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