DC launches common school lottery website

The new common application and lottery system for DCPS and most charter schools has launched its website. You can't apply or enroll yet, but you can start learning about how the process will work.

Photo by Zdenko Zivkovic on Flickr.

The website, My School DC, is being rolled out in three phases: Learn, Apply, and Enroll. Families will be able to apply to schools through the site beginning December 16. There are two different deadlines for applications: February 3, 2014, for high schools, and March 3 for preschools through 8th grade.

Families will find out which schools they've been matched with and where they've been wait-listed on March 31. They will have until May 1 to enroll, which they'll do directly through the school rather than through the website.

Sujata Bhat, project manager for the system, says there's no advantage to applying early and urges families to take time to consider their options. School profiles on the site provide basic information and links to other sites with additional information. The profiles also list dates for schools' open houses.

All in all, 193 schools are participating in the common process. That includes all DCPS schools and all but a handful of charter schools. Families applying to one of the non-participating charter schools can also apply to other schools through the common system.

Parents who want to send their kids to their "as of right" school don't have to apply through the website. Starting in kindergarten, students have the right to attend the DCPS school whose boundaries include their address.

In some cases, elementary schools feed into middle schools and high schools that don't draw from the same boundaries. Students also have the right to attend schools within their "feeder pattern," even if their addresses fall outside the schools' boundaries.

Also, any child who is currently enrolled at a school can remain there without submitting an application through the website.

But families need to apply through the website if they want their children to attend:

  • participating charter schools
  • DCPS schools that aren't within their boundaries or feeder pattern
  • DCPS PK3 and (if not already enrolled in the school) PK4 programs
  • one of the 6 DCPS specialized high schools
The goal of the common system is to help ensure that as many students as possible get into schools they want to attend. Families can list up to 12 schools in order of preference, on a single application, and each student is assigned a random number.

A computer algorithm then tries to match the student with her first choice, then her second choice, and so on. If the student gets into her fourth choice, for example, she'll be waitlisted at her first, second, and third choices.

The system should make the application process simpler for families and make it easier for them to find schools they want. The website lists all 193 schools alphabetically, but it also has boxes that can be checked to narrow the search.

For example, parents can search for schools in a certain ward that serve first-graders and offer dual language programs. They can also search by school name or by address.

The common process should also make things easier for schools, especially charters. Some schools have experienced a "September shuffle," with students leaving and arriving as they get into schools off waiting lists. Some families have accepted offers from more than one school and then switched after a week or two.

Preferences and specialized schools

The lottery won't be completely random. Some schools offer preferences to certain applicants, such as siblings of current students. And some DCPS schools offer preferences to non-"as of right" students who live nearby, including applicants for PK3 and PK4. Those preferences will be respected in the lottery.

In addition, students applying to one of the 6 specialized DCPS high schools will need to satisfy the school's individual requirements before gaining admission. For example, a student applying to Duke Ellington School of the Arts would need to successfully audition before being entered into the lottery for the school. The application deadline for high schools is a month earlier than for other schools to allow time for students to satisfy these eligibility requirements.

Bhat said that she and others working on the program will be doing their best to get the word out and explain how to use it in the coming months. They will be training DC government employees at libraries, community centers, and other agencies that come into contact with parents.

While there is no cell phone app for the website, it's designed to resize itself to display properly on a smart phone. However, Bhat recommends that families use a computer to fill out the actual application.

It's also possible to enroll over the phone by calling a hotline. Translators will be available for non-English-speakers. The website itself is translated into 5 languages other than English.

Once they've submitted an application, parents can log back into the system and change their choices at any time before the deadline. Bhat also urges families to log back in if their contact information changes.

A second round of the lottery will be held for families who either missed the first round or didn't get into any of their first-round choices. But Bhat warns against waiting until the second round to apply, since many slots will already have been filled, and round two applicants will be behind others already on waitlists. In addition, families who received a match in round one will not be eligible to participate in round two.

The My School DC website generally appears easy to understand and user-friendly, given the complexities of school choice in the District.

Some charter schools that opted out of the common system expressed doubts about participating in a program that's untested. But Bhat and her team have been working with the Institute for Innovation in Public Choice, which has designed common application systems for several other school districts.

The chair of its board is Alvin Roth, a Harvard economist whose specialty is designing matching programs such as My School DC. Last year he won the Nobel Prize for his work.

So while there's no guarantee that the application and lottery process will go smoothly, it comes with a pretty good pedigree. And it's almost sure to work better than the system, or lack of system, it's replacing.

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. 


MySchoolDC would be great if it could serve as a portal to meet the teachers and principals. That's how you choose a school. Meet the staff.

One day, this should allow you to click on a school and see videotaped lessons given by its teachers and you could make an appointment online to meet with the principal and get the school tour.

That being said, we can dream big. This website is a pretty good start.

by Steven Glazerman on Nov 20, 2013 10:34 am • linkreport

This looks like it will solve the charters' problems, but unless the enrollment selection is recorded in one place it will not solve the main problem facing the DCPS.

Since parents "will have until May 1 to enroll, which they'll do directly through the school rather than through the website. ... Parents who want to send their kids to their "as of right" school don't have to apply through the website....Some families have accepted offers from more than one school and then switched after a week or two."
The lottery match program might reduce the problem of students enrolled in multiple schools from "more than three" to "at-most three" schools (lottery match school, "matter of right" school and "feeder school destination" school). Currently, the possibility exists that the student is enrolled in multiple charters as well as the DCPS MoR and FSD schools.

Charter problems are mostly resolved but DCPS still has the same vulnerability to over- under-enrollment as before.

The Shuffle is very damaging to the public schools who need to accommodate the late entrants in mid-September.

by You can't win if you don't buy a lottery ticket on Nov 20, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

I am a District of Columbia resident(DC Washingtionan) born and raised here. I have raised one child attending DC schools to a system that failed my first born. Raising my second in the same system that supposed to be so much better, it saddens me greatly to see how the system fails the high achiever students who yearns a better school to be challenged. This DC common lottery system is suppose to ensure as many students as possible get into schools they want to attend. Well, thats not the situation for many parents who children has been placed on waitlist after waitlist. How does this system really work towards students who deserve the right to be place in good or for better words a better school? Schools where they can be accomodated based on academic needs.It is extremely sad that through the DC Commom lottery a parent can list as many schools and then be waitlisted only to remain at the school where there are no challenges for them or place them at neighborhood school where there is poor academic performances.

by Felicia Robinson on Mar 31, 2014 12:48 pm • linkreport

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