When DC Bilingual Public Charter School — a language-immersion school in Northeast Washington — opened in 2004, more than 80 percent of its students came from low-income families. But as more affluent and White families enrolled in the District’s traditional public and charter schools, the demographics shifted.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, 36 percent of DC Bilingual’s students were considered at-risk — homeless, in foster care or from families receiving public assistance. This most recent academic year, 26 percent were from the at-risk group.

Now, the head of DC Bilingual is one of many top charter leaders supporting proposed D.C. Council legislation that would allow charter campuses to give at-risk students preference in the school lottery placement system.

“We don’t have that many slots available,” said Daniela Anello, head of school at DC Bilingual. “Our school mission does not work unless we are truly surrounded by diverse individuals who bring unique perspectives.”

In the District, just over a quarter of public school students attend their assigned neighborhood school. The lottery, known as My School DC, places applicants in nearly 250 traditional public and charter schools that are not their in-boundary school. It is intended to give all families the same shot at securing a seat in the city’s top schools.

But even with the lottery and more than 60 charter networks to choose from, White and affluent families tend to cluster at a relatively small number of schools.

The charter sector is 73 percent Black, 16 percent Hispanic, 6 percent White and 1 percent Asian. Forty-seven percent of charter school students are considered at-risk.

Some of the demographics at top-performing schools, though, look dramatically different than the citywide averages. In a public hearing Friday about the legislation, school leaders said affluent families apply to a relatively small selection of schools in such large numbers that students from at-risk families face slim odds of getting a seat.

At Washington Latin — a middle and high school with a classical curriculum that has a waiting list of more than 1,500 families — only 6 percent of middle school students are considered at-risk. Sixteen percent of high schoolers meet the definition. Many of the campuses with a bilingual curriculum have similar demographics. At Mundo Verde, 12 percent of students at its main campus are considered at-risk.

“With the current economic and public health crisis, we can expect to see more kids meeting the criteria of the at-risk designation either by the technical definition or by spirit,” said Rick Cruz, chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the accountability and authorizing panel for the charter sector. “As a starting point I urge the council to adopt this legislation.” 

Education data shows that racially and economically diverse schools can help close the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their wealthier peers. Children from upper-income families experience no academic decline.

The D.C. Policy Center, a local think tank, released a study last month examining the impact that adding an at-risk preference would have on lottery results. The study examined data from 12 charter schools with long waiting lists and small at-risk populations, and found that at-risk applicants had a 4 percent chance of getting a slot for prekindergarten at a school, compared with 10 percent of applicants across all groups.

If the at-risk preference were placed ahead of sibling preference — an often potent lottery preference that gives children with siblings at a school priority for a slot — the study found that at-risk students would have a 71 percent chance of entering these schools.

If the at-risk preference were placed behind sibling priority — a more likely scenario — at-risk students would have a 42 percent chance, according to the study.

A 2018 My School DC study looked at charter and traditional public schools whose student populations were less than 25 percent at-risk. It found that because there are so few slots available, an at-risk priority would have a noticeable impact only if it were placed above sibling preference.

“A priority for at-risk students in the common lottery is a way to improve access to some schools for some students furthest from opportunity,” Chelsea Coffin, the author of the D.C. Policy Center report, testified Friday in front of the D.C. Council. “In one of the toughest years to come as we recover from the impact of school closures due to covid, it has the potential to make real change for individual students who are at risk and to alleviate the socioeconomic segregation that persists at some of our schools.” 

But some people say that the legislation may not go far enough and that the council should require charter schools to include an at-risk preference. Others say the city needs to allocate additional funds and devise plans to ensure that at-risk students and families have the resources to succeed in these schools.

The legislation would require the Public Charter School Board to approve a school that wants to add an at-risk lottery preference.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) — who co-chairs the education committee and co-introduced the legislation with council member David Grosso (I-At large) — said that the proposed bill is a starting point and that he is willing to make changes to it.

“We want to narrow the achievement gap, and one approach might be to improve the access to different schools,” Mendelson said in an interview. “We are seeing that access is not as robust as we would want it to be, and this is one way to improve that.”