“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.”