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Navigating the DC's school lottery for beginners

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The great festival before the lottery

Last spring, my wife and I entered the EdFest convention at Stadium Armory with thousands of other hopeful parents. We were all to be a part of a massive, slightly chaotic interview process. None of us were interviewed, though. Instead, we rigorously interrogated potential schools for the sole job of caring for, and educating our kids.

We didn’t have the powers of a traditional interview panel, and most of us didn’t have the financial means to bribe the schools. Of course, anyone with sufficient means didn’t need to be there in the first place. Besides, the lottery doesn’t work that way anymore.

Instead, we were the future members of this or that school’s PTA on fact-finding missions. We wanted to know how we should rank schools on our lottery form in order to increase our chances of getting in somewhere (the lottery is random, though, and can’t be gamed- find more info here).  

Parents everywhere furiously jotted notes, collected literature, asked pertinent questions, let potential schools bribe our children with candy or trinkets (to be lost or tossed later), and collected free reusable grocery bags.
It was all part of the dog and pony show.

Most of us wouldn’t get into top-notch, bilingual schools, but we still needed to make an informed decision on our 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th choice, etc. Ending up in a bad school wouldn’t be preferable, but not being placed would be worse (abysmal PK 3-4 programs probably don’t exist in the District).

And, in a place where pretension and competition are famously high, you don’t want to be left out of the “lottery” conversations among your parent friends. It’s a good way to bridge uncomfortable silences at friendly bbqs and parties, while simultaneously shutting down childless people from talking about their fucking hikes in the Chilean mountains.

By the end of the summer, I’d become a pro at making conversation about the lottery and various schools.

I’m jumping way ahead of myself, though. 

Getting a head start on your lotto picks: the open house period


EdFest came close to the deadline of turning in our lotto picks, but first there was about 3 months of open houses to attend.

This was an intense time. I must’ve gone to 3, 4, 15, sometimes 30 open houses a week (true fact). I studiously took detailed notes that I haven’t looked at since.
I would often run into the same parents at subsequent open houses and we became fast allies in this ultimately futile scramble. We compared notes, congregated together, and bombarded administration officials with hard questions.

The first open house I attended was a school on Capitol Hill. It was a pseudo Montessori program that focused on ECE (Early Childhood Education), with special attention on the emotional and psychological development of Pre K kiddos. They had a large handful of special programs and extracurricular activities, including karate (one of the most salient features of the school).

Congressmen, military officers, FBI agents, and interstellar dignitaries came to volunteer at the school, teaching classes and giving children the secrets of the universe.
I was hooked. This school needed to be on the top of our list.
Then I learned that they only had 2-3 open spots for students not living in-boundary (within the school district). Unless you could afford the million dollar houses in the neighborhood, you’d have a better chance with the actual lottery.

Although heartbroken, I expected this.

The next open house was a prep school that had far more lottery spots for out-of-bounds students and boasted the highest test scores in the city. Their kids got into the best high schools and even went on to attend Ivy League universities. They also had a diverse population of kids, a trait mostly white affluent families in urban centers seem to look for in any program.

Although they boasted less special programs than the Capitol Hill wonder school, they had an involved PTA, a bitchin’ library, great teachers (who carried whips for some reason), a garden, and a lovely playground.

We then went around to the classrooms, where kids were separated into various groups, focusing on different learning blocks (which are just different play based educational activities). The 3yr olds were strapped to chairs, however, fearfully and meekly repeating their alphabet and numbers.


This was odd but I brushed it off.

Leaving one classroom, we ran into a group of 7yr olds, walking in perfect formation down the hall. As they passed us, the teacher commanded them to greet us. We all stared in horror as 15 children turned our way and said in perfect robotic unison, “Hello. A pleasure to meet you.” They all had lifeless gray eyes.

Afterwards I made my escape but not before I witnessed one lively child being ushered into a room where they were inserting microchips into their eyes.

Playing it safe may get you the best of all worlds 


In the end, we opted to put our local school, a Title 1 school (meaning lots of things are provided for free or reduced cost), at the top of the list. Despite the naysaying of a few friends and other detractors, we couldn’t find much wrong with the school. My personal objections were generally uninformed and not serious, so I’m glad my wife built up my confidence about the school.

After several weeks of sobbing (school growing pains, I’m sure), our daughter came to love the school and now shoos me away when I come pick her up.
I’ll always wonder if we could’ve gotten into my top pick, a fantastic school that ended its uplifting but strange morning affirmation by pledging allegiance to Ra…

Still, I know we didn’t make a wrong choice, and the toddler regales me with her studies everyday, and she’s happy. For now, I can ignore her new platinum hair and peculiar eye color


(Originally written a few months ago- our daughter is fine and enjoys her new powers)


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