Some charters opt out of unified enrollment lottery

All DCPS schools and most charter schools have agreed to a common enrollment lottery that will take effect for school year 2014-15. The new process will cut down on duplicate applications and student reshuffling at the beginning of the year. Why, then, have some charters opted not to participate?

Photo by Zdenko Zivkovic on Flickr.

For years now, observers of the DC education scene have been calling for a unified enrollment process, either for all charter schools or for both charters and DCPS schools. The benefits seem clear: parents will be able to file a single application and rank schools in the order of their preference. Schools will no longer find students leaving in September as they get into other schools off waiting lists, or simply decide they would be happier at another school where they also secured a spot.

But when the deadline for joining the common lottery arrived at the end of September, a dozen charter schools were missing from the list. The charters who are participating account for nearly 90% of charter slots, but the ones who opted out include some highly sought-after schools, such as Washington Yu Ying and Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB). Clearly, some parents will continue to apply to those schools separately, in addition to or instead of applying through the common process.

A fact sheet on the unified lottery, dubbed My School DC, explains the procedure, although some details are not yet finalized. Parents will be able to apply online to as many as 10 to 15 schools, including both charter and DCPS options, listing them in order of preference. Families can submit applications beginning on December 16, and there are two different application deadlines: February 3, 2014 for high school applicants, and March 3 for all others.

Each applicant will be given a random lottery number. A computer algorithm will then match each student with one school, using the random number to break ties when a school is over-subscribed. The student will be wait-listed at any school she listed higher than the one she gets into. A second round of the lottery will follow sometime in May, for those families who didn't participate in the first round or didn't get matched.

The lottery website itself has limited information right now, albeit in 6 different languages, but it does include a list of participating schools. Sujata Bhat, project manager for My School DC, says that more information will be available in a few weeks.

Schools that opted out

GGE contacted 10 of the schools that have opted out of the lottery to ask them for their reasons and got substantive answers from 4 of them. Their explanations vary.

St. Coletta PCS chose not to join because it serves a highly specialized population. The school focuses on students with intellectual disabilities, often in conjunction with other serious problems. According to Sharon Raimo, the school's CEO, 20 to 25% of the students are in wheelchairs, and many have tracheotomies or suffer from seizures.

The school would prefer to take only students who need its services the most, but as a charter school it's required by law to take all comers. Joining in the common lottery, Raimo says, would only compound the problem.

"Someone could choose KIPP and have us as a back-up," Raimo says. "That's just crazy."

At least one other school is worried that joining the common lottery would mean losing students to schools like KIPP DC, a high-achieving charter network.

Patricia Ragland, the enrollment coordinator at Tree of Life PCS in Ward 5, said the school draws many of its students by word-of-mouth or because their siblings are already enrolled. The school's executive director decided not to participate in the unified lottery because it would have made it easier for families to find other options, Ragland said.

Ragland specifically mentioned the risk of losing students to KIPP and Two Rivers PCS, both of which have recently won bids to open new charter schools in Ward 5. The Public Charter School Board has ranked both of those schools in Tier 1, its highest category, while Tree of Life falls into Tier 2.

LAMB and Yu Ying

The other two schools that responded, LAMB and Washington Yu Ying, expressed general support for the idea of a unified lottery but decided to hold off on participating.

As for LAMB, a Tier 1 school in Ward 4, its Executive Director, Diane Cottman, said in an email that the school is "hesitant to join a system that has not yet been finalized."

"With a more cautious approach," she wrote, "LAMB hopes to avoid the uncertainty that comes with a work in progress."

But, as project manager Bhat points out, DC is not the first city to implement a unified enrollment lottery. Denver and New Orleans have had similar programs in place for several years, and New York has instituted a common application system. And the same company that designed all three of those systems, the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, is designing the one in DC. Newark and Philadelphia are also working on plans for common lotteries.

Yu Ying, a Mandarin-immersion school that this year had over 1000 applicants for 40 available slots, was more specific about its reasons. Cheri Harrington, Yu Ying's chief operating officer, said the school would prefer a screening device on the website that would narrow down choices based on a list of preferences. A parent could check boxes, for example, indicating that he's looking for a Montessori program in a particular neighborhood, and the website would display a list of schools meeting those criteria.

Harrington says that every year a few parents apply to Yu Ying without realizing, for instance, that the preschool program is conducted entirely in Mandarin. A unified lottery might result in more such confusion.

But Bhat says that the website will include a feature that allows parents to specify criteria such as which grades a school serves, where it's located, and what special programs it offers, including dual-language programs. She says that the design of the website has been driven by what the schools want, and that no school other than Yu Ying had expressed interest in a more granular screening system.

Other school districts that have tried common lotteries have also found that some charters opted out. Only Denver has 100% participation, and according to its superintendent, that was a tough sell. Charters tend to prize their autonomy and may fear that joining a unified system will erode their distinctive character.

But schools can also benefit from joining, and not just by reducing the September waitlist shuffle and the overhead involved in processing applications. They can also reduce the suspicion that they're manipulating their own lotteries by "cream-skimming," either by making it more difficult for parents to apply or by selectively calling applicants on the waitlist.

Still, it's cause for celebration that the overwhelming majority of DC charter schools have opted into the unified lottery this year. And let's hope that even more will sign on in year two.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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It sounds like My School DC should have a system for flagging unusual schools. Many parents will do extensive research before ranking schools, but it's not realistic to think that every parent will be so aware. Maybe the case is stronger for schools like Coletta and Yu Ying whose unusual features are more obvious, but I would offer the option to schools like Tree of Life and LAMB, too, so that DC can get a truly universal application form. Leaving schools out of My School DC altogether is ultimately going to lead to more confusion for students and for administrators.

by Tom Veil on Oct 24, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

My son has started at Yu-Ying for pre-K, but I certainly don't speak for the school itself. Here are my perceptions:

Being a Mandarin-immersion school means that parents must be extremely committed to helping their child practice and succeed in mastering a very difficult language. Since my wife's first language is Mandarin, I can't comment on how much commitment it takes for parents who don't, but anecdotally I understand this requires English speaking parents to devote a great deal of time to help their kids succeed.

At the least, having a separate lottery for an immersion school means that those parents have demonstrated at least some involvement in understanding what the school is about because it is that much more difficult to apply. Even then, if a significant number of children who attend find that mastering Mandarin is too difficult, this makes the very ability of the school to deliver on the promises made to those who can succeed more challenging. So if Yu Ying somehow can help influence how well it can deliver on its promise, I understand why it would opt out of the process.

I am not convinced that when confronted with a multitude of choices on the application form, each parent would have a chance to focus on the long-term commitment of participating in a language immersion program. For a native Spanish speaking parent, the selection is a no-brainer, but for others, issues like student performance and location would be the primary drivers in the selection process. Not sure how having a check the box approach is the best way to help channel kids to a school most appropriate for them.

by Steve Seelig on Oct 24, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't a parent who applies to a school through My School DC still have the option to later back out and enroll their child elsewhere? I would think a parent applying to Yu Ying who initially was unaware of that schools' distinctive language focus would be informed of this before enrollment, allowing them to revise their selection. Or does application through the lottery require enrollment?
Hopefully charter schools will reconsider their decision to opt-out, especially if My School DC develops a means of identifying unusual schools.

by Brett McBride on Oct 24, 2013 5:27 pm • linkreport

As a prospective PS3 parent, I am excited about the prospect of a common lottery that combines charters and public schools. By limiting the number of choices and forcing parents to evaluate schools and rank choices up-front, it will lead to better outcomes for everyone--students, parents, teachers, administrators. I did, however, want to offer one comment on how the lottery system as I understand it could be improved.

Originally, I had heard that the lottery would be similar in one respect to San Francisco's, in that mutually-beneficial trades would be made by the computer when it is possible to make two families happier by switching school acceptances. For example, if Child 1 gets into Capital City and Child 2 gets into Bridges--but child 1 has ranked Bridges higher than Capital City and child 2 has ranked Capital City higher than Bridges--then the computer would trade them so that Child 1 gets into Bridges and Child 2 into Capital City. This would have many positive benefits:

- Child 1 and Child 2 would be in schools that work better for them. This means they would be more likely to stay in these schools over time, rather than re-lotterying in future years. This would bring more stability to the schools themselves over time.
- Child 1 and Child 2 would be dropped from more waitlists, since they got into higher-ranked choices. By moving through this in an iterative process, people would be dropped from more waitlists, and more people would get into a high-ranked choice.
- This feature would decrease the "September shuffle" even more, since people would be more likely to get into a high-ranked school. This would be better for students, families, teachers, and administrators.

The PCSB factsheet that you linked to does not explicitly say that it will not include the swap feature, but I've heard from others that it won't be included because people think it is confusing. I don't see anything confusing about it when it is done by computer. It seems like it would only improve the system (without any drawbacks).

by Susanna on Oct 25, 2013 10:03 am • linkreport


I think with the way this system works, those kinds of situations won't happen. Every student in the lottery is given a number, then they start with student #1 and work their way down, putting the student in the school they ranked highest that still has spots when their number is called. So I don't see how two students could end up in this situation if this is the way the lottery works.

by MLD on Oct 25, 2013 10:50 am • linkreport

@MLD. I wish that were the case. Unfortunately, from what I can tell this lottery will be the same as the DCPS lottery from last year. You do not have any better a chance of getting into a school you rank high. You just get thrown into the lottery with everyone else, and whether you get in is random. What will happen is that if you get into, say, your #5 choice, then you are dropped off the waitlists for #s 6-10. But your probability of getting into a school is no better whether you rank it #1 or #10. That is why the trade/swap feature is so important.

by Susanna on Oct 25, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

The information available is not comprehensive but the description given in the link sounds different from the way the DCPS lottery was conducted. They are emphasizing giving people their first choice.

I guess what I'm saying is, how is it possible for someone who has school A ranked #5 and school B ranked #6 to be put in school B, and then later on in the lottery someone who has B ranked 5 and A ranked 6 placed in A? There has to be a space in A to place that second person, and if there was a space, why would the first person not be put in it?

All of this is probably extremely complicated but it seems like the way it has to be done is go through each school one-by-one and fill them with students who listed it as 1st choice in order of preference attributes then lottery number. Then once you've gone through all the schools you go back and look at the unplaced students' 2nd choice schools and try to place them there, reordering/bumping out based on preference (I assume 2nd choice w/ sibling preference (can't get into 1st choice) takes precedence over 1st choice with no sibling preference). Using this method I don't think swaps are needed.

by MLD on Oct 25, 2013 1:00 pm • linkreport

I hope you are right. But everything I have heard, including from someone who said she read exhibits at the Chancellor's speech last week on the lottery, are that the lottery this year will use the same algorithm as the lottery last year. The difference is that more schools will participate, and there will be more choices. Basically, everyone (after sibs and in the case of charters founders are accounted for) has the same probability of getting in, regardless of ranking. That means you could get into a school that someone else has ranked higher. In any case, there will be much more information to come soon, I am sure, and I really do hope that they do it the way you mentioned. That would be ideal.

by Susanna on Oct 25, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

"Harrington says that every year a few parents apply to Yu Ying without realizing, for instance, that the preschool program is conducted entirely in Mandarin. A unified lottery might result in more such confusion.

But Bhat says that the website will include a feature..."

It seems biased to allow one side to present a rebuttal when earlier in the article it clearly states:

"Sujata Bhat, project manager for My School DC, says that more information will be available in a few weeks."

Which seems to support that argument that the system does not have a clearly defined feature set.

by parent on Oct 25, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

"They can also reduce the suspicion that they're manipulating their own lotteries by "cream-skimming," "

Automation and Computerization are not the same as transparency. In a school system that is plagued by staff (adult) cheating how can people be so naive as to think the charters are manipulating the lotteries?

by parent on Oct 25, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

@parent--For the record, I did contact Yu Ying to ask them to comment on the screening feature described by Sujata Bhat, but they didn't get back to me.

by Natalie Wexler on Oct 25, 2013 4:43 pm • linkreport

Sounds like, if anything, this will light a fire under Tree of Life. Sounds like they're scared that more people will realize that you can find a better school than theirs.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 17, 2013 10:00 am • linkreport

Well i did apply to ying. Im concerned parents may not be given enough credit. I have a strong desire to teach my son a foreign language. Hes the perfect age because its so much harder to grasp for adults. I just hope its not too much demand so as not to affect his confidence. Its not my first choice but i consider it an excellent one if my son can grasp the new language at 5years. But it wasnt a choice i made by accident...its good to aim high.

by momjustapplied on Dec 16, 2013 7:08 pm • linkreport

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