Beckett Gelinas, 6, sits buckled up after his mother, Jennifer picked him up at the Inspired Teaching School. Beckett started the school year at another school, but moved to the Inspired Teaching School when an opening became available. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

For a long time, a walk to the nearest elementary school was all it took for D.C. parents to enroll their children for classes. Now, for a growing number of families, landing a seat in a classroom takes months of maneuvering and moxie in a process that continues long after school starts each fall.

Thousands of seats change hands in the first weeks of class as students leave one school for another, a quiet migration triggered by the intense competition for a good public education in the nation’s capital.

This is the wait-list shuffle. Parents say it’s a downside of the city’s school-choice movement — a nationally watched experiment that has given Washington families more options than ever but also has injected a new level of agony and instability into the start of the academic year.

The change has been spurred by the rapid expansion of public charter schools, which operate outside the traditional school system and under different enrollment rules. As parents try to get their children into the best schools, they can apply to an unlimited number of them. Once admitted, students can hold seats in more than one school.

Those parents seeking to preserve their options often relinquish the extras only when forced to on the first day of class. Principals then scramble to fill their rolls from long wait lists, recruiting students who are enrolled elsewhere. The cascading effect lasts into October.

When 6-year-old Beckett Gelinas headed off to his first day of kindergarten at H.D. Cooke Elementary on Aug. 27, his parents hoped he would rise to the top of one of 10 wait lists elsewhere. Three days after classes started, they heard from their top choice, Inspired Teaching Demonstration School.

Beckett’s mother, Jennifer, had to hand the phone to her husband, Rick Gelinas, after she burst into tears of relief. “It has been such an emotional roller coaster,” she said.

The uncertainty is not just hard on parents, who must rearrange daily schedules, commuting patterns and after-school care. It’s also difficult for children, who bid farewell to friends and adjust to new routines as they swap schools, and for teachers, who must orient new students to classroom expectations.

Administrators, meanwhile, often work the phones late into the evening, selling their programs to parents to fill their classrooms. What’s at stake for schools is money: Public funding depends on enrollment figures, so each child is worth thousands of tax dollars.

“We have had to hire an admissions coordinator, which is something we never would have thought we needed to have in a public school,” said Karen Dresden, head of Capital City Public Charter School. “But this is serious business.”

The free-for-all process

There has long been a scrum to win seats in the city’s best traditional public schools, but the rise of charter schools — which now enroll more than 40 percent of Washington’s 77,000 students, a larger proportion than any other city except New Orleans — has helped turn that scrum into a frenzy.

A growing number of parents are entering lotteries for D.C. public schools, especially for pre-
kindergarten — but they are limited to six applications each year and can’t enroll in more than one at a time.

The charter school process is a free-for-all: There are 57 different charter schools, and parents can enter as many lotteries as they like. Many track their options with elaborate spreadsheets, relying on word of mouth, test scores and gut feelings to identify favorites.

Some seek charters and out-of-boundary D.C. public schools because of specific academic offerings, such as bilingual immersion. Others say they are trying to avoid struggling neighborhood schools.

Each year, lucky students win seats in more than one charter school, or one traditional school and several charters. Other families spend the summer months eagerly refreshing school Web sites, watching their children move slowly up long lists.

This spring, the waiting lists for charter and D.C. public schools topped out at more than 35,000 names, many of them duplicates. Some schools offer admissions preference to siblings of enrolled students, but most families can do little to improve their prospects.

The lists begin to move during the summer, as families settle on choices or move away. Then they accelerate after the first day of school, when principals see who doesn’t show up and turn to their wait lists.

According to the D.C. Public Charter School Board, 1,141 students withdrew from a charter school within the first month of classes in fall 2011. Another 2,671 entered a charter school within that same time frame.

More than 3,000 students enrolled in a new D.C. public school during that first month of the year in 2011, but officials could not say how many of those were wait-list switchers. Many were children whose parents signed up for a neighborhood school at the last minute.

Parents who take multiple seats say they’re playing by the rules of the game and doing what’s necessary to get what’s best for their children.

One mother of a kindergartner — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering school officials and other parents — spent the first week of classes this fall holding slots at two of the city’s most coveted charter schools, weighing whether she could afford after-school care at the one she preferred.

“I’m beyond frustrated by the process, and still don’t know if my son is in a good school,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Another child started preschool last year at a charter that was an hour away by public transit. Her parents leaped at the chance to transfer her to a closer public school when a slot opened up, but the commute was still exhausting by a 4-year-old’s standards.

Then she got off the wait list at Ross Elementary, within walking distance of her home. She transferred again. Within the first two weeks of school, she had been in three different classrooms with three different teachers and three different groups of students.

Ross was an excellent fit, said the girl’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter’s privacy. “We are so lucky that it worked out, but it sure was an agonizing time,” she said.

Even a good outcome can sometimes feel like a temporary victory. Nikki White applied to six D.C. public schools and more than a dozen charters this year for her 4-year-old son. He got into AppleTree-Lincoln Park, a charter preschool on Capitol Hill, days after school began.

She enrolled him, and then took a deep breath. To get her son into kindergarten next year, she’ll face more lotteries and wait lists — plus the open houses, during which schools woo prospective parents, that begin this fall.

“I feel so happy it’s over, at least for now,” White said.

Creating a better system

Some parents crave a computer system to match students with the schools they most want to attend. Charter leaders are also eager for a solution, though many are hesitant to introduce rules or systems that might limit parents’ ability to choose. The power of the free market, after all, is an organizing principle of the charter-school movement.

“It’s hard for us as charter operators to say, ‘Okay, we need to do something about this’ — because it’s kind of like saying we need to take away choice from parents,” said Emily Lawson, chief executive of DC Prep in Northeast, where administrators overbook their classrooms by at least 10 percent in an effort to end up with the right number of students.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter school board, is convening a task force of charter leaders this fall to brainstorm ways to stem the shuffle.

“It’s terrible for schools, and it’s terrible for parents,” he said. “I think it doesn’t have to be anywhere near this bad.”

He already has taken one step: Until now, charter-school principals have had no way to know if students were enrolled elsewhere. For the first time this summer, the board flagged more than 1,800 students registered at multiple charter schools. That gave administrators a better idea of who might not show up for classes.

Some have suggested that a neighborhood preference for charter admissions might help, reassuring parents that their children have a better chance of getting into a nearby school. Michelle Robinson, who lives in Ward 8, opposes that idea.

Robinson, a single mother of a 4-year-old, entered lotteries at 17 schools across the city. Most were not in her neighborhood, which she felt did not offer enough suitable options.

“I went strictly off of word of mouth, and the schools that are near me were never mentioned,” said Robinson, who was thrilled when her daughter got into the sought-after Capitol Hill charter school Two Rivers in July.

Linda Moore, executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Northeast, said the issue will go away only when families feel that there are enough desirable schools to go around.

“Ultimately what would work best,” Moore said, “is if all the schools were good schools.”