Last weekend, thousands of parents descended on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the D.C. Education Festival, a one-stop school shopping event meant to help families navigate the city's growing, and sometimes overwhelming, number of school choices.
This year, for the first time, traditional D.C. middle and high schools were on hand to sell themselves to parents, although the city's increasingly popular charter schools have long marketed themselves at this annual event. The deputy mayor for education, Abigail Smith, said that it is a sign of the city's effort to forge a meaningful collaboration between two sectors that compete for students and resources.
"To me, this is a symbol of the wonderful rich choice environment that we have, where families can figure out what's the best thing for my kid," Smith said.
Aisle after aisle of colorful booths, each touting a particular curriculum, approach and teaching philosophy, were staffed by representatives of more than 100 schools. The chance to survey the choices and ask face-to-face questions as they tried to narrow the options was appreciated by parents.
Assigned neighborhood schools are attended by only about one-quarter of D.C. public school students. Selective high schools, out-of-boundary traditional schools or charter schools are chosen by three quarters, underscoring the unusually large role that school choice plays in the District
As Emma Brown of The Washington Post reports, this is the first time that parents will enter a unified enrollment lottery for all traditional schools and most charter schools. Parents said the lottery won't address the frustrating scarcity of quality schools, but it may streamline what was a difficult process in which families entered separate lotteries, each with its own application date and requirements.
"I think that's good for teachers and parents and certainly good for students," said Susanna Montezemolo, an Adams Morgan mother of a prospective preschooler. "But it does put a lot more pressure on parents to do research beforehand."
Students could apply to and get into various schools under the old system while parents waited until the spring to decide which school their children would attend. However, presently, families may apply to a maximum of a dozen schools in the unified lottery, and when they apply they must rank their schools in order of preference. As parents put it, Saturday's fair gave them a way to figure out which schools they want to spend more time investigating.
"Being here, you can kind of figure out which open houses you want to go to," Montezemolo said.