Beckett Gelinas, 6, sits buckled up after his mother, Jennifer picked him… (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
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.