Thousands of parents came to the D.C. Armory on Saturday to get a jump on their school search at the first city-wide public schools fair.
The formerly all-charter event expanded this year to include every traditional school so that parents pushing strollers or shopping for high schools for their teens could peruse tables sorted by grade and alphabetical order, not by school sector.
“We want parents to find schools that are good for their kids, regardless of their governance structure,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, whose office coordinated the event.
Charter schools, which now serve 44 percent of D.C. public school students, are accustomed to marketing their specialized programs and services. But it’s a newer skill set for traditional schools that historically served neighborhood children and now, after years of enrollment losses, must compete for students to make their budgets and programs viable.
Principals, teachers, and parent volunteers donned their schools’ spirit wear, handed out fliers and showed videos of school events. Some described their schools as “a hidden gem” or “the best-kept secret.” Others distributed candy and “I support D.C. Public Schools” stickers.
“We are really happy that D.C. Public Schools are showing up and standing out,” said Vielka Scott-Marcus, principal of Payne Elementary School.
Kids wearing Payne T-shirts could be seen at the expo, and the school’s cheerleading team did a dance routine that drew a crowd. The school attracted attention last year when a homeless student, Relisha Rudd, was abducted by a janitor at the shelter where she lived with her family. But on Saturday parents and staff were talking about their modernized building and preschool program.
LaShandra Patterson, a mother from Southeast Washington, said that she has two young children enrolled in a charter school she likes but that she was curious to look at some D.C. public schools.
“I like the direction that [Schools Chancellor] Kaya Henderson is moving the schools in,” she said.
Ashley Sharpe, a mother from Northeast Washington, said she plans to limit her preschool search to charter schools.
“I was brought up in D.C. Public Schools with No Child Left Behind,” she said. “I want something different for my child.”
Many said they do not care what kind of school their children attend as long as it is good.
Parents waited in long lines to get in and had lots of questions: Does my child have to be potty trained by the start of preschool? Do you offer before-school care? Foreign-language programs? What are my chances of getting in?
The school choice “Edfest” was moved earlier this year to give families more time to prepare for the enrollment lottery, which opens Dec. 15.
This is the second year that parents will apply through a common application and enrollment lottery. And it is the first year that wait lists will be centrally managed, so parents do not have to call schools to check the status of their applications. By centralizing these functions, officials hope to make the process less taxing on families. But most people agree it is still an overwhelming task to sift through all the options. Some parents carried clipboards with checklists or spreadsheets.
Sarah and Michael Hulsey, of Columbia Heights, said they met with a consultant before the event who helped them narrow down their list.
They had sorted it into three categories, ranging from the hardest schools to get into to the equivalent of “safety schools” for their toddler.
Some schools and community groups help families who do not speak English or do not have time to exhaustively research schools, and at least two schools shuttled families to the event Saturday.
Irene Williams, who lives in Southeast, said the one-stop event helped her a lot. She recently moved and has been asking every school-aged child and parent she can find about their schools.
“Here I can get it all done at one time,” she said.