For school choice, the main event


Maggie Bory, 2, keeps busy with crayons while her parents speak to the staff at Shining Stars Montessori Academy public charter school. Her parents are looking into PreK programs. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Thousands of parents descended on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday for the D.C. Education Festival, a one-stop school shopping event meant to help families navigate the city’s growing — and sometimes overwhelming — number of school choices.

The city’s increasingly popular charter schools have long marketed themselves at this annual event, but this year, for the first time, traditional D.C. middle and high schools were on hand to sell themselves, too.

It’s a sign of the city’s effort to forge a meaningful collaboration between two sectors that compete for students and resources, said Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education. “To me, this is a symbol of the wonderful rich choice environment that we have, where families can figure out what’s the best thing for my kid,” Smith said.

Representatives of more than 100 schools staffed aisle after aisle of colorful booths, each touting a particular curriculum, approach and teaching philosophy. Moms and dads said that they appreciated the chance to survey the choices and ask face-to-face questions as they tried to narrow the options.

Danielle Garris, 13, an eighth-grader at KIPP DC’s Key Academy, said she wanted to find out more about high schools that interested her, including the selective Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. But she and her mother also stopped to talk with teachers from schools they didn’t know much about.

“You only hear about a certain few schools in the news, so we wanted to just come and see what would be a good fit for her,” said her mother, Chiquita Garris of Southeast Washington.

Only about one-quarter of D.C. public school students attend assigned neighborhood schools. Three-quarters choose selective high schools, out-of-boundary traditional schools or charter schools, underscoring the unusually large role that school choice plays in the District.

Columbia Heights parent Lourdes Martinez said she had just discovered a traditional school that would accept her 2-year-old when he turns 3 next fall, even though his November birthday is after the usual cutoff date for preschool.

“That’s the kind of stuff you don’t find out on the Internet,” Martinez said. “It’s easier to look in one place for everything and actually talk to people.”

This year also marks the first time that parents will enter a unified enrollment lottery for all traditional schools and most charter schools. The lottery won’t address the frustrating scarcity of quality schools, parents said, but it may streamline what was a chaotic process in which families entered separate lotteries, each with its own application date and requirements.

“I think that’s good for teachers and parents and certainly good for students,” said Susanna Montezemolo, an Adams Morgan mother of a prospective preschooler. “But it does put a lot more pressure on parents to do research beforehand.”

Under the old system, students could apply to and get into various schools, and many parents waited until springtime to decide which school their children would attend.

Now, families may apply to a maximum of a dozen schools in the unified lottery, and when they apply they must rank their schools in order of preference. Parents said Saturday’s fair gave them a way to figure out which schools they want to spend more time investigating. “Being here, you can kind of figure out which open houses you want to go to,” Montezemolo said.

As of noon Friday, nearly 4,700 students had submitted applications to the unified lottery for the 2014-15 school year, D.C. officials said. Thousands more are expected to apply before the application period closes Feb. 3 for high schools and March 3 for early childhood programs, elementary schools and middle schools.

Planning for Saturday’s event was overseen by a steering committee of charter school leaders, some of whom were hesitant to invite traditional schools to participate. But committee member Julie Meyer said including as many schools as possible made sense.

“We say we’re about school choice. Well, let people choose,” said Meyer, who heads the Next Step, a charter school for at-risk young people, up to 24 years old, who have not succeeded in traditional high schools. “We need to be consumer-friendly, and we need to make it easier for parents to navigate a very complicated, confusing system.”

John Davis, chief of schools for D.C. Public Schools, said that next year, he hopes the system’s elementary schools will take part. “If families are going to come to one spot, then we want our schools to be there,” he said.

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