Thousands of parents streamed into the Washington Convention Center Saturday for the District’s annual charter-school expo, eager to find a way to navigate the city’s large — and increasingly popular — universe of public charter schools.
For many moms and dads staring down aisle upon aisle of booths — each representing a different school with a different curriculum, a different teaching philosophy, a different set of extracurricular activities and after-care arrangements — the day was as daunting as it was exciting.
“I can’t figure out what is the best for my daughter,” said Lowrey Redmond, the mother of a 3-year-old, who said she already had studied reams of school data online. With a list of 20 prospective schools, she was hoping the expo would help narrow down the number of schools she’ll have to visit.
“I have to go through the rat race of it because I need to know that I’ve done everything I can to get my kid into a good school,” said Redmond, who lives in Logan Circle and fears that the proposed closure of her neighborhood school — Garrison Elementary — will leave her without a guaranteed school option nearby.
Kerry and Dan Mustico, the parents of twins who will be preschoolers next fall, carried a spreadsheet that organized details about 25 charter, traditional and private schools.
The Musticos said they’re grateful for the options — and for the entrepreneurial spirit they noticed in the convention center ballroom Saturday. “You can sense that they have to be better than the competing schools, and that’s good,” Dan Mustico said.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of the traditional school system. They are open to all students across the city, with admission by lottery if there is more demand than space available. This year they enroll more than 40 percent of the city’s students.
Charter leaders are well aware that navigating the city’s education choices can be exhausting and frustrating, and have recently taken some steps to ease the process.
Parents now have a new way to get information about each of the city’s charter schools, officials announced at Saturday’s expo: “MyDCcharters,” a free mobile phone app that compiles test scores, re-enrollment rates, transportation details and other data about each school. It is sortable by location, for parents who want to limit their search to nearby schools.
“In order to really empower parents to be able to make good choices, having access to information is critical,” said Brian Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which developed the app with a grant from the Wireless Foundation.
In the past, each charter school set different application and lottery dates, which meant parents had to be ultra-organized to avoid missing important deadlines.
This year, most of the city’s charter schools have agreed to use the same dates, giving parents one less thing to think about. Applications to those schools are due March 15 and lotteries will be held March 22.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), appearing at the expo, praised those efforts and credited the charter sector with pushing the District’s traditional public school system to improve.
“Competition creates better outcomes for children,” Gray said. “There’s no longer a monopoly.”
D.C. Council Member David Catania (I-At Large), recently named chairman of the council’s newly reconstituted education committee, said the traditional school system — which is preparing to close 20 schools due to low enrollment — would do well to engage in the kind of marketing and recruitment efforts on display at Saturday’s expo.
“This is a very impressive turnout. What’s missing here is DCPS,” said Catania. “Right here is exhibit 1 as to why charter schools are attracting so many of our children.”
Charter leaders — particularly of newer schools — said the expo is an important part of their efforts to win name recognition and begin building a reputation via strong word-of-mouth.
“We are using this as our kickoff event for teacher and student recruitment,” said Jason Lody, executive director of Sela, the city’s first Hebrew-immersion charter, which is scheduled to open next fall. “For us, it’s all about exposure at this point.”
Recruitment is just a first step in a long process. The most sought-after charters receive thousands more applications than they accommodate, leading to long waitlists that can take months to finally shake out.
Parents across the city say there aren’t enough good schools to go around. They trade stories about lotteries, waitlists and rejection. Redmond, the Logan Circle mother, said she often feels like the work she’s putting into researching schools won’t matter much if her child doesn’t luck into any of the schools she’s chosen.
“There are just not enough options for downtown D.C. parents,” said Redmond. “Everybody’s going to apply to the same schools and I’m not going to get in.”