Sabrina Gordon knows that any lottery is a fluky game of odds. But she needs to believe that the school lottery is different.
The single mother lives in a poor area of Southeast Washington and refuses to enroll her 10-year-old son, Trevonte, in their neighborhood school, Johnson Middle, where he has a guaranteed slot.
So Gordon joins the thousands of families across the city anxiously awaiting results of the city’s competitive school lottery this week — a system that highlights the bleak reality that the demand for high-performing schools in the District far exceeds the supply.
The lottery has been a long-standing source of tension, with wealthy families hiring consultants to navigate the school choices and nonprofits emerging to ensure that disadvantaged families know how to maximize their options. The lottery was thrust into the spotlight last month when D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson was forced to resign amid outrage that he bypassed the lottery so his daughter could transfer to Wilson High, which has a wait list of more than 600 students. Now, because of that scandal, the school lottery is likely to draw more scrutiny than ever.
For young, upper-income families who move into gentrifying neighborhoods with low-performing public schools, a bad lottery outcome could mean packing up and leaving the city. And for families who have few resources, a lousy lottery number brings uncertainties and little hope.
“Johnson, he’s not going there,” said Gordon, lamenting a school where fewer than 5 percent of students meet expectations on standardized math and English tests. “I have faith that one of these schools will pick him.”
The school lottery, known as My School DC, places students in nearly 250 traditional public and charter schools. It is intended to give families such as Gordon’s the same shot at securing a seat in the city’s top schools as a wealthy family in Georgetown.
But families and education watchdogs say the existence of the lottery underscores the inequities in the city’s education offerings: Shouldn’t there be enough quality schools that families don’t have to rely on luck to secure a seat?
“The way to fix the inequities is to expand the supply,” said Steven Glazerman, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research who has researched the city’s lottery system. “That’s the long-term solution; the short-term is a Band-Aid.”
Children in the District are guaranteed a slot at their neighborhood school. But if families want their children to attend a charter school or a traditional public school not in their neighborhood, they have to enter the lottery.
About 75 percent of the nearly 100,000 students attending traditional and charter schools used the lottery to win a spot. In 2017, nearly 2 of every 5 students participating in the lottery came from east of the Anacostia River — the poorest neighborhoods in the city but also the wards with the most children. All families seeking a preschool slot, which is not guaranteed for every child under city law, must also go through the lottery.
The lottery uses an algorithm to assign students to schools and is engineered to be fair, according to Cat Peretti, the executive director of My School DC.
“Why parents and students choose schools is a very complex and personal decision,” Peretti said.
Families rank up to 12 schools on a single application, and each child is randomly assigned a number. The lower the number, the better the chance of securing a slot at a coveted school.
The lottery doesn’t account for students’ race or academic history. But most schools give preference to families who already have a child enrolled at a school — and that preference can be potent.
At Mundo Verde, a popular language-immersion charter school, all but one pre-K3 slot was given to 3-year-olds who had a sibling enrolled or a parent on staff, reflecting a common practice. The school opens more slots in pre-K4 and kindergarten because the school gets more low-income and minority applicants in the later grades, when enrollment is mandatory, said Kristin Scotchmer, executive director of Mundo Verde.
The populations at each school don’t necessarily mirror the demographics of the traditional public and charter school systems. The student body at Two Rivers Public Charter School — which had the longest wait list of any school this academic year, at 1,438 students — is 26 percent white, while white children make up only 5.9 percent of students enrolled in all D.C. charter schools.
At Mundo Verde, which has the second-longest wait list, 32 percent of students are white.
Peretti has a team of five people dedicated to reaching out to parents. If families don’t have a computer, a city employee will help fill out the lottery application over the phone.
“I’ve been losing the lottery system every year,” said Tamika Williams, whose son attends his neighborhood school, Brookland Middle.
But she wants him to go to a top high school and is playing the lottery again this year.
Before the District implemented a lottery system using a single application in 2014, parents had to keep track of about 30 lottery deadlines and applications. Charter schools operated their own lotteries, and the traditional public school system ran separate lotteries for lower and upper grades. Chaos ensued. Parents often had to go to each school to submit a lottery application.
Adding to the confusion, charter schools informed parents of the lottery results at different times, which resulted in parents enrolling their children in the first school they heard back from and then, when they received a slot at a more desirable campus, enrolling them there, too.
When Scott Pearson took over the D.C. Public Charter School Board in 2012, he met with Kaya Henderson, who was chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, and they pushed for a unified lottery system. Denver, New Orleans and New York had already streamlined the process, so the technology and precedent were there.
By spring 2014, My School DC was ready for use. Schools aren’t required to enlist in the common lottery, and Pearson said it wasn’t an easy sell.
He worked on convincing the big charter networks, including KIPP and Democracy Prep, to participate, and most other schools followed.
“We had a target customer in mind, and it was a single mom living east of the river who was unbelievably burdened and often locked out of the ability to participate in school choice,” Pearson said.
The engineering behind My School DC is based on the algorithm that earned the 2012 Nobel Prize in economics for formulas that matched thousands of medical residents with hospitals, kidney donors with recipients and New York students with high schools.
Neil Dorosin, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, which develops lottery algorithms, said parents can’t cheat the system, and schools can’t sift through applicants to choose who they want.
Software assigns participants a number that sticks with them until they are matched with a school. Children then get to enroll in that school while remaining on the wait list for any school that a family ranked higher but did not get into.
“All the algorithm is doing is just implementing what that city’s rules are,” Dorosin said. “If you are looking for unfairness, it is not in the algorithm.”
Each winter, Vanessa Gerideau receives the names of about 125 families. They are typically low income and don’t know much about the lottery system. Gerideau, a part-time parent advocate for the nonprofit DC School Reform Now, calls each family to offer help navigating the lottery.
She reminds them of deadlines and talks about different schools. The organization sets up virtual tours so families can learn about the city’s schools without visiting them.
She said many of the families have never heard of language immersion and Montessori-style schools, which are often the most coveted and highest performing. But those families often say other schools are a better fit, she said. For Gordon, mother of the 10-year-old in Southeast Washington, location and academic rigor matter most, leading her to select Democracy Prep Congress Heights as her top pick.
According to David Pickens, executive director of DC School Reform Now, location is a major factor in choosing schools, and the schools that wealthier white residents select are not in parts of the city with the highest concentrations of low-income black residents.
Some students from poorer neighborhoods use the lottery to get a seat in high-performing campuses run by D.C. Public Schools in more affluent neighborhoods.
“The stakes are much higher for Ward 7 and 8 families,” Pickens said, referring to neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, “because their options are not good options in most cases.”
But the lottery system could undergo an important change. Some advocates want to give a preference to at-risk students — defined as homeless, recipients of welfare or food stamps, and those who have languished in high school.
The proposal would allow schools with relatively few at-risk students to decide whether they want to give these disadvantaged students, who represent 44 percent of all traditional public and charter school students in the District, a lottery preference. But detractors say that could penalize other students and taint a lottery that touts its equity.
Conor Williams, who lives in Petworth with his two young children, said he has participated in the lottery three times and got “laughable” numbers his first two times. His older child, a first-grader, has been in three different schools, and although Williams was happy with them, he continued to participate in the lottery until he matched with a school he found suitable in the older grades, as well.
“We didn’t get what we wanted right away,” said Williams, a researcher at a think tank.
Williams said his family was contemplating moving because of concerns over the neighborhood and because his family didn’t initially love its school options. But then he secured a slot for his older child in their top choice: DC Bilingual Charter, a language-immersion school.
He now has no plans to leave his neighborhood.