Capitol Hill education consultant helps parents navigate D.C. school choice


Educational consultant E.V. Downey organizes handout papers for her Feb. 16 lottery seminar as her daughter Eloise Josephine, 8, looks on. (Craig Hudson/For The Washington Post)
February 24, 2013

When Capitol Hill mom E.V. Downey went into business as an education consultant, she thought she’d cater to parents angling for advice on admission to private schools.

Instead, almost all of her clients are clamoring for help getting their children into a good D.C. public school.

It’s a sign of the times in the District, where a thriving charter-school movement and a commitment to public pre-kindergarten have given rise to more education options — and more parental angst and competition — than ever before.

“It’s just totally overwhelming,” said Margot Hodges, the single mother of a 4-year-old boy, who recently moved to Washington and discovered that she was already behind in the hunt for a school for next fall. She heard about Downey on a neighborhood listserv and signed up for one of her how-it-all-works lectures.

“It was just stunning to find out what was involved,” Hodges said. “I had no idea.”

The District takes pride in offering its residents one of the widest varieties of school choice in the country. Only about one-quarter of students attend their assigned neighborhood school; the rest choose out-of-boundary schools, magnets or charters.

Parents say they are grateful for the choice, but choice means choosing. And choosing is work: attending open houses, comparing curricula, trading gossip and trying to divine — from test scores and demographic data and other numbers — which schools might work.

In Washington, choice also means gambling. The most sought-after schools don’t have enough space to meet demand, and winning a seat in one often comes down to winning the lottery. Literally.

One lottery, for admission to out-of-boundary traditional schools, closes Monday night. Then there are separate lotteries for each of the dozens of charter schools that attract more applicants — often thousands more applicants — than they can accommodate.

All that responsibility and all that uncertainty makes for plenty of stress — and, for Downey, plenty of potential customers.

“It’s kind of like a counseling session,” Downey said, kicking off a lecture this month, one of more than a dozen she has done since September. “You can tell me anything. If you cry, it’s okay.”

She was only half-kidding.

Social divide

Downey appears to be a rare breed, the product of a marriage between the city’s complex school landscape and a D.C. middle class with more money than time to figure it all out. More than 40 percent of the District’s 80,000 students attend charter schools, but students in the traditional system also make deliberate choices, as more than half do not attend their assigned neighborhood school.

Experts said they weren’t aware of similar public-school consultants in other parts of the country.

Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, called Downey’s business “a sign of what we might see” in other cities as the school-choice movement continues to accelerate.

Most D.C. families don’t have the wherewithal to pay for school advice, raising questions about whether school choice highlights a divide between parents who have the information they need to navigate the system — and the ability to transport their kids across town to a better school — and parents who don’t.

That divide is increasingly visible as the city gentrifies, attracting middle-class families who often don’t see struggling neighborhood schools as viable options.

Allen said she’s not convinced that paying someone for school advice — which she likened to paying someone to organize your closet — gives affluent families an advantage. Low-income families have access to reams of free school data as well as word-of-mouth networks that serve much the same purpose as a paid consultant.

“Poor parents get that information from the people they go to church with, the people they work with,” Allen said.

In the know

Downey used to work as the admissions director for a private boys’ school in Washington until, seeking more flexible hours, she started her own business in 2011. (Her husband, Charles T. Downey, is a high school teacher who writes freelance music reviews for The Washington Post.)

A longtime Hill dweller with two kids in an out-of-boundary school, Downey has weathered the world of lotteries herself.

Just as important, Downey is an admitted gossip who knows what people are saying about schools: which principals are creative and energetic and which are slow and stubborn; which parent-teacher associations are well-established vs. fragile or nonexistent; and which schools have unimpressive test scores but are turning around and gaining momentum.

It’s the sort of scuttlebutt that matters to many families but doesn’t appear on official school report cards or ratings. Parents — including, sometimes, moms and dads of infants with years to go before they enter public school — pay $25 each for one of Downey’s two-hour group lectures. A personal consultation runs $150.

It’s a niche business, so far concentrated on Capitol Hill. But Downey hopes to expand to other neighborhoods, such as Brookland and Petworth, with many families who are desperate for school advice and have the money to pay for it.

“It’s really hard to grasp all the options,” said Carolina Lopez, who opted for one-on-one help decoding the options for her preschool daughter. “You want to maximize your potential.”

Downey walked Lopez through the options, outlining pros and cons of each and laying out the likelihood of getting in. Then they identified which traditional schools to try for and how to rank them. Parents are allowed to choose as many as six schools, ordered by preference.

There is a game in the rankings, just as there is a game in so much of school choice in the District. You’re only going to get into one of the six schools, and you’re only going to get wait-listed at schools you’ve ranked higher than the school you get into. Preschoolers aren’t guaranteed a spot with any of their choices.

“You’ve got to strategize,” Downey said. And such strategizing continues after the lotteries. Whatever seat you’re offered, Downey advises, take it. If you get into a traditional school and a few charters, you can hold on to more than one spot while you weigh your options.

And if you get wait-listed at your favorite school — not unlikely in a city where public-school wait lists topped out at more than 35,000 names last year — visit the school, say hello and express enthusiasm, she said. Memorize the school’s phone number so you’ll be ready to answer your cellphone when the school calls.

“You can’t really work the wait list,” Downey says. But you can “make it easy for yourself to be gotten off the wait list.”

Race and class

Race and class are two issues that simmer in the background — and occasionally burst to the forefront — of her conversations with parents. Downey steers parents away from schools that focus on teaching poor children, for example, saying that even top-ranked and much-lauded schools — such as KIPP DC and D.C. Prep — “wouldn’t feel like a very good fit” for a middle-class family.

Hodges, the recent D.C. transplant, told Downey and the other women in her seminar that she wouldn’t want her son to be in a school filled only with other white children, but that she also wouldn’t be comfortable in a neighborhood school where her son might be the only white child.

“I just wanted to get the elephant out of the room,” Hodges said later.

District leaders know that choosing a school can be exhausting and confusing.

In an effort to simplify things, most charters have now agreed to a common application deadline and lottery date. Previously, there were more than 30 deadlines, said Abigail Smith, a consultant who helped with the coordination.

Common dates are a first step toward creating a more streamlined process, Smith said, that would allow parents to devote energy to choosing a school, instead of strategizing to win the lottery.

Hodges said she left Downey’s lecture feeling hopeful about her son’s prospects and grateful for the help in deciphering the system. She said she’s not shooting for the moon when it comes to preschool.

“It doesn’t need to be excellent,” Hodges said. “I want him to be safe. I want him to learn. I just want good enough, where I don’t need to worry.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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