Mark your calendars for Saturday’s annual D.C. school choice “Edfest,” a kind of public-school-palooza designed to give families an introduction to the options.

The event marks the official start of the school choice season, coming a few weeks before the enrollment lottery opens Dec. 15.

In the District, only about a quarter of students attend their in-boundary traditional public school. Fourty-four percent of students attend charter schools. Others attend traditional schools outside their boundary or selective high schools.

The application process is a sign of collaboration between traditional and charter schools, which compete for students.

The former charters-only event expanded last year to include traditional public schools. This year, more than 180 schools will be represented at the D.C. Armory, starting at 11 a.m.

This will be the second year that parents apply through a common application and enrollment lottery. Gone are the days when families were expected to submit multiple applications to multiple schools with multiple deadlines.

Also, for the first time this year, school wait lists will be centrally managed, so parents can check the numbers online or by phone. This is happening through My School DC, which is operated by the deputy mayor for education’s office.

Officials are working to streamline the process.

That said, there is plenty of work to do for families who want to make an educated decision about where to apply.

Where to begin?

The lottery is for prospective students applying to a charter school, preschool (with a few exceptions, enrollment is not guaranteed in neighborhood schools until kindergarten), citywide selective high schools or traditional schools outside a student’s attendance boundary.

Families planning to send students to their assigned school or reenrolling in the school currently attended do not need to enter the lottery.

For everyone else, here are some steps that can help you get started.

1. Go online.

A new School Finder Web site lets you plug in your address and search for public schools, both traditional and charter, within a certain distance or with a specific program. From there you can go to a school-specific Web page that shows test scores, information about programs and open houses, and links to more detailed school report cards.

2. Go to the Edfest.

This year, only a handful of charter schools have opted out of the common lottery and the Edfest, so you have a chance to meet principals, teachers or parents from almost any school of interest.

Given the size of the event, it may help to do some research ahead of time (see previous step) to figure out which tables you’d like to visit. But also plan to wander a bit and discover some schools that you’ve never heard of or considered.

The event does not offer child care, but there are some kid-friendly attractions, including story time, sports activities and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

3. Visit schools.

Schools are beginning to post open-house dates on their Web sites and on their profile pages through My School DC. This is the best way to get a feel for whether you like the school and can imagine sending your child there. Some schools have dates starting this month; others appear to have dates starting in January or February.

4. Make a list.

The common lottery lets you apply to a dozen schools, ranked in order of preference.

5. Check it twice.

Or three times or four times. There’s no competitive advantage to applying early, so feel free to stress until the end. You can edit and resubmit your list until the deadline at 11:59 p.m. Feb. 2 for high school applicants and March 2 for preschool-through-eighth-grade applicants.

6. Apply.

So, what’s the trick?

Parents want to know how to maximize the chances of getting their children into a preferred school, but officials say there is no trick. The computerized lottery is designed to be “strategy-proof.”

The matching algorithm, written by a Nobel prize-winning economist, is meant to maximize the number of people who get into a school they like. It assigns students random lottery numbers and tries to match them with the first choice first, then the second choice, and so on down the list. Once they are matched, their names are put on wait lists for every school listed above, but not below, the matched school.

Students can get preference in the lottery, most often if a sibling attends the school. Some charter schools are beginning to offer a preference for the children of staff members. Traditional schools give preference to students who are in-boundary for preschool (otherwise, admission is guaranteed).

Then what happens?

Decisions will be sent out by March 27. Last year, 71 percent of families were matched with one of their choices in the first round. Those without a match will be on the wait list for all the schools, and they can apply to different schools in a second round.


There is a lot more information on the My School DC Web site,

Call 202-888-6336 or e-mail City officials promise to get back to you — unless you wait until the last day, in which case they may be inundated.

I will be writing about the process — and going through it for the first time myself. Send me your observations and experiences, and I can try to put them in perspective and share with others.