If D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 20 under-enrolled public schools goes through, thousands of parents across the District will be in search of a new school for their children.

This didn’t go well in 2008 when former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee closed 23 schools, which cost more than anticipated and led to violence between teenagers from different neighborhoods whose schools had been consolidated.

Parents are not happy about the proposal, either. They have been especially vocal about plans to close five schools in Ward 7, saying it will push more students into public charter schools and further erode the traditional public schools.

Finding a new school can be a difficult decision, one that can be overwhelming for children and parents. Experts say now is the time to begin searching for a new school. The D.C. Public Charter School Board will host an expo Saturday, and the public school lottery opens Jan. 28.

“You should put more research into this than you do into buying a new car,” said Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week. “It’s the same with a house or anything you’re buying. This is something you’re buying that can’t be replaced after two years if it didn’t work out. You can’t get those two years back.”

Parents in the District have multiple options, including traditional, charter, magnet and virtual schools, and the city also has a scholarship program for private schools. The Brookings Institution recently ranked the District third in the country for school choice on its Education Choice and Competition Index.

To find the best fit for your child, here are some tips from officials with D.C. public schools and the Charter School Board, and experts on school choice.

Figure out the lottery

Because the District allows students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods, it’s important to know how to navigate the public school lottery. Students can apply to as many as six public schools through the lottery. For public charter schools, students can apply to as many as they like.

Last spring, about 35,000 students were on waiting lists for traditional and charter schools. Parents can visit the D.C. public schools Web site (www.dcps.
to see how many seats were offered at a particular school last year, to get an idea of demand, said Claudia Lujan, chief of staff in the office of the Chief Operating Officer for D.C. public schools.

Dig deeper

Parents should look beyond test scores and report cards in deciding whether a school is a good fit for their child, experts say. Consider other things such as how a school serves a wide range of students, said Carol Lloyd, the executive editor at GreatSchools.

“Ask the principal and teachers what happens if a kid is failing here,” Lloyd said. “What will you do for a kid who is falling through the cracks or struggling? And not only if your child might be failing, but also if your child is an exceptional student.”

Campanella agrees that the school environment, and the fit for your child, are the most important things to consider.

“You want to get a sense that everyone feels that they’re on the same team and that there’s an expectation that children are going to succeed and it’s not a chore,” Campanella said. “It’s not about what the experts and pundits are saying is the newest fad in education, it’s about your child.”

Can you get there?

The school’s location is an important consideration, said Audrey Williams, the government and public affairs manager for the D.C. Public Charter School Board. If parents like a school in Ward 4, but live in Ward 8, they need to figure out whether they can realistically get their child to school on time, she said.

Lujan also advises parents to take a long look at the school they’re being reassigned to before looking outside their school district.

“Don’t assume that the receiving school is not the place for you and you have to go elsewhere,” Lujan said. Transition teams of parents from both the receiving school and the school that is closing often work together to find ways to incorporate the best things about both schools, she said.

Parents also shouldn’t put too much emphasis on what a school looks like. A new or renovated school building might look better than an older one, but that is not a measure of the strength of academic programs, Campanella said.

Visit your target schools

Guided school tours and open houses can be a great way to start looking for a new school, experts said. But to get a real sense of what goes on in a school, parents need to spend time there.

Lloyd said that when visiting a potential school, parents should observe not just how teachers and students interact, but also how the students interact with the principal, aides and everyone on the faculty.

Talk to parents

PTO meetings are another great source of information, said Paramjit Joshi, the chairwoman of the behavioral medicine department at Children’s National Medical Center. If there is not a robust PTO, Lujan said, ask the school to give you the names of parents who are involved, and reach out to them.

But keep in mind that schools are not one-size-fits-all, and a school that is terrible for one child might be the perfect fit for another.

“You cannot depend on the opinions of others to make a decision about your child, and can’t depend on hearsay compared with what you see with your own eyes,” Lloyd said. “You can get great information, great ideas and hear about schools you wouldn’t have thought of [from talking to other parents], and get diversity of opinion and perspective, but don’t depend on the playground chatter to make decisions.”

Prepare for the change

Once you have chosen and been accepted to a school, experts said, talk about the new place and make arrangements for your child to spend some time there.

“For younger kids . . . you might just want to start talking up the school and how lucky they are,” Lloyd said. “You could say ‘I hope we get in, I’m really excited about it,’ anything to build the thrill of this journey to a new school. With older kids it’s probably best to give them time at the school.” That could include attending sports events or other extracurricular activities at the school, she said.

Parents should remember that anxiety and nervousness are normal for everyone when they are making a big life change, and should try to help their children work through their feelings by talking to them about their concerns, Joshi said.

“Be supportive and encouraging, and let your child ask questions,” Joshi said. “If you brush your child off and say ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine,’ your child will still have questions in their mind. So have an open dialogue, and ask ‘what are you thinking’ but not ‘what are you worried about.’ ”

Joshi added: “They don’t know the teachers, the curriculum, the expectations. Parents need to anticipate some of this and support them through it and also say it’s normal to feel worried, but we are able to help you, and the school is there to help you.”

Dates to remember

Jan. 5: Charter School Expo, noon to 4 p.m. at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center

Jan. 28: First day to apply for D.C. public schools out-of-boundary lottery.

Feb. 25: Last day to apply for D.C. public schools out-of-boundary lottery.

March 15: Deadline for applications to the 45 charter schools participating in the common application. For the first time, most of the city’s 57 charter schools are using a common application and deadline.

March 22: Lottery for charter schools participating in the common application.

April 12: Families who get seats in the public charter schools lottery must notify the D.C. Public Charter School Board of their intent to enroll.

May 1: Families who get seats in the public schools lottery must notify D.C. public schools of their intent to enroll.

SOURCE: D.C. Public Schools and D.C. Public Charter School Board