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.
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.