Charter Pulse

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D.C. preparing a new unified enrollment lottery for its traditional and charter schools

enrollment-lotteryThe majority of the District’s charter schools and all of the city’s traditional public schools plan to participate in a single, unified lottery to determine enrollment for next fall, a shift that education officials hope will streamline what has often been a frustrating and chaotic process for families.

The new lottery also aims to create more certainty for school administrators, stabilizing rosters earlier in the year and minimizing an annual waiting-list shuffle that has students switching schools throughout the summer and into the school year.

“The more people who get seats early in the process — because then they can plan and are not going out of their minds — and who get seats at schools they’re excited to go to, the better for everyone,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, whose office is coordinating the lottery effort.

Until now, some families could win admission to multiple schools while others were shut out entirely. The unified lottery uses a computer algorithm to maximize the number of families who get into at least one school they want to attend.

It’s a simple concept that’s beginning to take hold in cities such as Washington, where the rise of charter schools has created more choice and more uncertainty for parents. But it’s a complicated problem to solve, particularly when there aren’t enough seats in sought-after schools to go around.

Enter Alvin Roth, an economist who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize for solving just this kind of problem. He designed the programs that match thousands of medical residents with hospitals, kidney donors with recipients and New York City students with high schools.

Roth is now a professor at Stanford University and chairman of the board of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, which previously used his ideas to build algorithms for school lotteries in New Orleans and Denver and now is creating the District’s new system.

The institute aims to build “strategy proof” school lotteries that are fair, efficient, transparent, and that can’t be gamed by even the most determined parent. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is funding the work for the District’s lottery.

“Each city is unique,” said Neil Dorosin, the organization’s executive director. “The problems they face in enrollment and choice are not unique.”

In the past, each of the District’s charter schools had its own application process and conducted its own lottery to determine enrollment when demand exceeded available space. The traditional school system conducted a separate lottery for admission to preschool programs, selective high schools and out-of-boundary schools.

Some students gained admission to more than one school, while others languished on long waiting lists that continued shifting even after the first day of class each August.

Under that old system, parents could apply to dozens of schools, then wait to see where their children were accepted before deciding where to enroll. Now, parents can only apply to a maximum of a dozen schools and they need to know earlier — before the lottery occurs — where they really want their kids to go.

The unified lottery represents a new level of collaboration among traditional and charter schools, which compete for students and resources. The effort is voluntary, but the vast majority of schools — accounting for 95 percent of all seats for preschool through 12th grade — are participating. The 14 charter schools that don’t participate will continue to require separate applications.

Families can find details about the new lottery at, a centralized clearinghouse for information about school enrollment. Starting Dec. 16, parents will be able to use the Web site to fill out an online application that allows them to rank up to 12 schools in order of preference.

After the application deadline — Feb. 3 for high schools and March 3 for elementary and middle schools — the algorithm will click into action.

It will match each child with his highest-ranked school possible based on how that child’s lottery number — and extra preferences, such as those offered to siblings of current students — stack up against others seeking a seat in the same school.

“The best way for a family to interact with this is to list the schools they want in the order they really prefer them,” Dorosin wrote in an e-mail.

Dorosin said the program works to match students with their highest-ranked choices, to the extent possible, meaning that ranking schools in their true order is the best way to ensure a more desirable school. Parents should not put schools at the top of their list simply because they think their children have a better chance of getting into them; officials said that if parents reach for a popular school and their children don’t get in, that doesn’t hurt the chances of getting into other schools lower on their list.

Lottery results will appear online March 31. Students will be wait-listed only at schools they ranked higher than the school to which they are offered admission. That’s another reason families should rank preferences honestly, Smith said.

“There is no benefit to putting choices in anything other than the order of where you most want to go,” she said, adding that outreach and communication efforts to parents will ramp up in the coming weeks and months.

Kara Cruoglio and Mike Zakriski, parents of a rising preschooler, said the lottery change has kicked their school-research efforts into overdrive.

“I was prepared for the old way, so it’s a little bit jarring, two months before go time, for everything to change,” Cruoglio said. “But I’m optimistic that it’s going to help more people get spots.”

They were among a steady stream of parents who on Saturday morning filled Dunbar High School’s atrium, where traditional and charter schools set up booths to advertise their offerings at a fair organized by the Ward 5 Council on Education.

“Our original plan was to apply to literally everywhere and then make a decision later,” Cruoglio said, adding that she feels “like we have to get as much information as we can up front.”

Families who miss the first round of the lottery or don’t get any seats may enter a second round in May, which will follow the same basic rules.

Smith led the development of the new process along with representatives from the traditional school system, the D.C. Public Charter School Board and three charter schools, Achievement Prep, Friendship and KIPP D.C.

The budget for the project is about $1.4 million for the first year, most of which comes from private funders such as NewSchools Venture Fund. Officials said they expect the cost to drop significantly after the first year. They are considering whether and how to move long-term management of the lottery out of the deputy mayor’s office and into another agency or nongovernmental organization.

Source: Washington Post – by Emma Brown

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This entry was posted on November 19, 2013 by in Charter Schools, Washington DC and tagged .


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