Two feet of snow and subfreezing weather didn't deter hundreds of parents yesterday from turning out to try to register their children for the D.C. public school of their choice.
Given the first-come, first-served rules for enrolling students in schools outside their neighborhood boundaries, parents from across the city showed up at the schools with parkas, horse blankets, down-filled sleeping bags, long johns and chemical heat packets to warm their hands and toes.
"If you like ice fishing in Minnesota in January, you'll like sitting outside a public school on Jan. 28," said Terry Lynch, who lives in Ward 1 and camped outside Eaton Elementary School in Ward 3 with six other hearty souls to submit an application to get his daughter into pre-kindergarten next year.
"You'd think there has to be a better way to do this," he said. "But I guess it's kind of a unique D.C. experience."
Since 1996, out-of-boundary parents have gone directly to the school of choice to apply for a spot for their child, sometimes camping out overnight to make sure they had a spot at the front of the line.
This year, School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman centralized the process and told parents to go to one of four schools and to submit a list of their top three preferred schools. She also changed the starting date for out-of-boundary registration from Oct. 1 to Jan. 28, drawing complaints that the designated schools would be flooded with applicants who would have to wait outside in the cold.
But two days ago, recovering from this week's snowstorm, school officials announced that out-of-boundary applications could be submitted either to the school of choice or at one of the four central sites.
"Now there's dual intakes, so you don't know who's first-served," said Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.
Assistant Superintendent Ralph Neal sought to reassure parents, saying the log-in sheets at the four central sites and the individual schools would be merged to ensure that "parents will have equal opportunity." Parents who apply to a particular school on the same date and the same time will be considered as "A" and "B" in the same time slot, and the school principal will apply other criteria, such as family hardship and special needs, in making the final decision.
The application period continues through Feb. 29. Parents will be told of the results March 31.
The four central registration sites are: Jefferson Junior High School for schools in Wards 1 and 2; Wilson Senior High School for schools in Wards 3 and 4; Spingarn Senior High School for schools in Wards 5 and 7; and Anacostia Senior High School for schools in Wards 6 and 8.
The popular Oyster Bilingual Elementary School had about 150 applications by 8 a.m. yesterday, while Wilson received about the same number for Oyster by mid-morning. At Wilson, the first parent in line, David Pansegrouw, showed up at 3 a.m. in layered clothing and felt-lined boots to register his son for Oyster.
"It was a very congenial atmosphere," said Pansegrouw, who took charge of the sign-in list. "People should be so cooperative on the roads." He and about eight other parents were let into Wilson's auditorium at 5:15 a.m.
Karen Smith and her husband, Roald Euller, left their 3-year-old son shortly after midnight with their nanny and went to Oyster, where they were 18th on the informal log sheet. They waited in their car, wrapped in sleeping bags and wearing fur hats, until Oyster Principal Paquita Holland arrived at 5 a.m. to let parents into the school and serve them coffee, juice and bagels.
"The saddest thing is, anyone who got there at 8 a.m . . . found 150 people in front of them," Smith said.
Donyal Holland, of Ward 6, got to Wilson at 11:45 a.m. to register her 14-year-old daughter. Despite doctor's orders to stay in bed, Holland, who is pregnant, had her husband take her to the school.
"This is more important now," insisted Holland, who said she had been feeling contractions for two days. "It's for her education. I want her to be in the place I can get her in."