Each year, lucky students win seats in more than one charter school, or one traditional school and several charters. Other families spend the summer months eagerly refreshing school Web sites, watching their children move slowly up long lists.
This spring, the waiting lists for charter and D.C. public schools topped out at more than 35,000 names, many of them duplicates. Some schools offer admissions preference to siblings of enrolled students, but most families can do little to improve their prospects.
The lists begin to move during the summer, as families settle on choices or move away. Then they accelerate after the first day of school, when principals see who doesn’t show up and turn to their wait lists.
According to the D.C. Public Charter School Board, 1,141 students withdrew from a charter school within the first month of classes in fall 2011. Another 2,671 entered a charter school within that same time frame.
More than 3,000 students enrolled in a new D.C. public school during that first month of the year in 2011, but officials could not say how many of those were wait-list switchers. Many were children whose parents signed up for a neighborhood school at the last minute.
Parents who take multiple seats say they’re playing by the rules of the game and doing what’s necessary to get what’s best for their children.
One mother of a kindergartner — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering school officials and other parents — spent the first week of classes this fall holding slots at two of the city’s most coveted charter schools, weighing whether she could afford after-school care at the one she preferred.
“I’m beyond frustrated by the process, and still don’t know if my son is in a good school,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Another child started preschool last year at a charter that was an hour away by public transit. Her parents leaped at the chance to transfer her to a closer public school when a slot opened up, but the commute was still exhausting by a 4-year-old’s standards.
Then she got off the wait list at Ross Elementary, within walking distance of her home. She transferred again. Within the first two weeks of school, she had been in three different classrooms with three different teachers and three different groups of students.
Ross was an excellent fit, said the girl’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter’s privacy. “We are so lucky that it worked out, but it sure was an agonizing time,” she said.
Even a good outcome can sometimes feel like a temporary victory. Nikki White applied to six D.C. public schools and more than a dozen charters this year for her 4-year-old son. He got into AppleTree-Lincoln Park, a charter preschool on Capitol Hill, days after school began.