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‘At-risk’ D.C. students to get priority in pre-K lottery

A new program debuts in nine schools next year

Isabella Sanchez teaches her fifth grade students last month at Garrison Elementary, one of the schools included in the new Equitable Access Designated Seats Program. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)
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The D.C. school lottery system remains a work in progress. The city eliminated preferences for the children of government officials in 2017. Last year, aiming to enhance equity in a gentrifying city, it allowed charter schools to give a preference to “at-risk” students.

Before the next school year begins, DCPS will extend that statistical preference to at-risk students at nine schools across the city in an effort to expand access to its early-childhood education program.

The change, announced in a news release last week, will allocate a specific number of seats at each school campus for students who are homeless, are in foster care or use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Through the initiative, called the Equitable Access Designated Seats Program, the spots will also be reserved past the application deadline for the lottery, so families with at-risk students have more time to get their children enrolled.

“We thought this would be a good step in our commitment to our youngest learners and ensuring that access,” DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in an interview.

The school lottery, known as My School DC, places students in roughly 250 schools across the city. Those in early-childhood education programs, such as prekindergarten for 3-year-olds and for 4-year-olds, must file an application to enroll. Older students, who participate in the lottery only if they want to go to a school outside of their neighborhood, do not need to apply.

The lottery program was introduced in 2014 to consolidate the process for parents. Previously, families often had to keep track of roughly 30 different deadlines, because the charter schools and D.C. public schools often had different timelines to file applications. It also incorporated mechanisms such as a “sibling preference,” so schools that were out of bounds for families could keep siblings together.

A 2020 study conducted by the D.C. Policy Center found that prioritizing at-risk students had the potential to improve their chance “to match at a school they have ranked and to increase socioeconomic diversity, especially at a subset of schools that serve low percentages of students who are at-risk.” The study said sibling preference preserved schools’ preexisting demographics by making it harder for students without siblings at a school to get in.

Four of the schools participating are offering the spots to students across the District; five schools will increase consideration for students within the neighborhood’s boundaries. School officials said that they wanted to provide both options to serve different constituencies, since some families may want to go out-of-bounds and others may want to stay within their neighborhoods.

A version of the program began at Stevens Early Learning Center for the current academic year. The program set aside 40 percent of the seats for at-risk students, school officials said. Not every spot was claimed, but it helped gauge how the program could expand. Eight more schools were added for the 2022-2023 academic year. Officials have not yet determined how many seats they will set aside for each of the participating schools.

“We believe expanding access means that more students in need and in greatest need will benefit from an early-childhood program,” Ferebee said. “So we are excited about the new schools that have been added to the program.”

The D.C. lottery is intended to give all kids a fair shot at a top school. But does it?

Maya Martin Cadogan, the founder and executive director of DC PAVE (Parents Amplifying Voices in Education), said the participating schools are in areas that have seen demographic shifts and gentrification in recent years.

Van Ness Elementary School, for example, is in a neighborhood greatly changed by gentrification, where not adding seats for at-risk students “could potentially keep out Black or low-income families that have lived there for generations,” Martin Cadogan said.

“I think that the schools they chose are the right tools in order to create equity, because the schools that are in neighborhoods that haven’t seen the same demographic shifts and gentrification are probably already serving a high number of at-risk students,” Martin Cadogan said.

DaSean Jones, 48, has four children in D.C. schools. As a resident of the Washington Highlands neighborhood, Jones supports an approach that’s “equitable as opposed to equal.” Schools in Ward 7 and Ward 8 have many students who are defined as at-risk, and a lot of those schools are performing poorly, he said.

“However they decide to it, we need to make sure every school is equipped to handle the influx of students that come in, to provide the services that accommodate them and that they get their best quality education,” Jones said.

Ferebee said the school system will be watching the data in the upcoming academic year to see how well this model works.