This is the wait-list shuffle. Parents say it’s a downside of the city’s school-choice movement — a nationally watched experiment that has given Washington families more options than ever but also has injected a new level of agony and instability into the start of the academic year.
The change has been spurred by the rapid expansion of public charter schools, which operate outside the traditional school system and under different enrollment rules. As parents try to get their children into the best schools, they can apply to an unlimited number of them. Once admitted, students can hold seats in more than one school.
Those parents seeking to preserve their options often relinquish the extras only when forced to on the first day of class. Principals then scramble to fill their rolls from long wait lists, recruiting students who are enrolled elsewhere. The cascading effect lasts into October.
When 6-year-old Beckett Gelinas headed off to his first day of kindergarten at H.D. Cooke Elementary on Aug. 27, his parents hoped he would rise to the top of one of 10 wait lists elsewhere. Three days after classes started, they heard from their top choice, Inspired Teaching Demonstration School.
Beckett’s mother, Jennifer, had to hand the phone to her husband, Rick Gelinas, after she burst into tears of relief. “It has been such an emotional roller coaster,” she said.
The uncertainty is not just hard on parents, who must rearrange daily schedules, commuting patterns and after-school care. It’s also difficult for children, who bid farewell to friends and adjust to new routines as they swap schools, and for teachers, who must orient new students to classroom expectations.
Administrators, meanwhile, often work the phones late into the evening, selling their programs to parents to fill their classrooms. What’s at stake for schools is money: Public funding depends on enrollment figures, so each child is worth thousands of tax dollars.
“We have had to hire an admissions coordinator, which is something we never would have thought we needed to have in a public school,” said Karen Dresden, head of Capital City Public Charter School. “But this is serious business.”
The free-for-all process
There has long been a scrum to win seats in the city’s best traditional public schools, but the rise of charter schools — which now enroll more than 40 percent of Washington’s 77,000 students, a larger proportion than any other city except New Orleans — has helped turn that scrum into a frenzy.
A growing number of parents are entering lotteries for D.C. public schools, especially for pre-
kindergarten — but they are limited to six applications each year and can’t enroll in more than one at a time.