How To Pick a Public Charter School

Two Rivers middle school students dance their way through the Lati n Dance.

With all the school options our city offers, how should parents determine what will work best for their children? In addition to private schools, the District of Columbia offers two types of free public schools to its citizens. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is the default option for students in Kindergarten through 12th grade. Each street address has assigned to it an elementary, middle, and high school in which students can enroll at any time of the school year.

The other public school option is Public Charter Schools (PCS). The charter school system, run by the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), celebrated its 20th anniversary of providing education to city students in 2016. In the system’s inaugural year, 160 students attended charter schools. During the 2016-17 school year, over 41,000 students were enrolled in a public charter school, representing over 40% of the total number of students in public schools in the city.

PCSs operate in much the same way as DCPS schools do, offering a free education to DC residents, but admission is based solely on application via the lottery. Most charter schools use the same Common Lottery system, run by MySchoolDC, as DCPS schools. For entry into any charter school at any grade level families must use the Common Lottery system. There are a handful of charter schools that do not participate in the lottery, either because they opt out or because they serve a population of students who have exceptional needs. For all the rest, families are dependent on the luck of the lottery.

While the lottery certainly does involve an element of chance, families should still make their school selections carefully. The order in which you rank the schools on your lottery submission form dictates which schools you are given an option of getting into, taking any schools you ranked lower off your list altogether. Making sure your list is well-crafted can give you the best chance at a top choice.

So what should you consider when making those choices? Here’s my list of top considerations for families navigating the public charter school lottery system.

1.     Location, location, location!

This should be a top factor when looking for a charter school. Traveling long distances to and from school, especially with young children, can get old very quickly. PCSs (and DCPS) do not generally provide busing to students. Older students can take advantage of free public transit, but younger kids need to be escorted. Even if you hire someone to transport your child, your child is still spending many minutes, if not hours, per day in a car. Choosing a school that is close to home or work can make a huge difference in quality of life. If a school is in a temporary location, it may move to a new location that is not as convenient, another consideration to think about.

2. Educational Models -- Bilingual, Montessori, Expeditionary, Oh My!

A main feature of charter schools is that they provide an alternate educational model to regular public schools. I divide Washington’s PCS’s into three categories: academically rigorous, serving a special population, and innovative educational models.

The first category includes such schools as KIPP DC, the Friendship PCSs, and DC Prep. These schools focus primarily on strict academics and making sure that students have the tools and support to succeed despite their economic backgrounds. In these schools school days and the school year are often longer, teachers are available after hours for homework help, and discipline is carefully maintained to allow the greatest possible time for academic instruction without distractions.

The second category includes such schools as Kingsman Academy for foster children, St. Coletta’s for special education students, and Briya for adult learners. Like the schools in the first category, these schools provide services that go beyond those of a traditional school. These services include mental health and medical support, speech, physical, and occupational therapy, and intensive English as a Second Language (ESL) interventions.

These first two categories of schools offer education to thousands of students across the city. However, most middle class families are looking for schools in the third category. These are schools that offer innovative educational models such as Montessori, expeditionary learning, and bilingual education. Families are drawn to the flexibility PCSs can have in offering a curriculum that differs significantly from DCPS.

It is important to make sure the educational models parents choose are a good fit for their specific child.  Innovative educational models that are of interest to one family may not be a good fit for another. Understanding what kinds of approaches would best suit each student will help narrow down choices. If a child best learns through play, perhaps a more strictly academically-focused school is not the best fit.. Bilingual education is incredible, but not all parents want their children to learn a language they cannot themselves speak.

3. What if we don’t want all of the other kids to look like ours?

Another attraction of these schools for middle class families is that many offer more economic and racial diversity than other charters and, in fact, than most DCPS schools.. For example, Mundo Verde, a bilingual English/Spanish program, is one of the most racially diverse schools in the city. Over 30% of their students are white, compared to under 6% for charter schools as a whole. Almost 40% are Hispanic/Latino, and 23% are African American (compared to roughly 75% of total PCS enrollees). Two Rivers Public Charter School, with an expeditionary learning model, has roughly 25% “at risk” students compared to 48% at PCSs overall.

4. Is it a good school and how do I decide that?

The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) evaluates its schools and assigns annual ratings to them. Schools are classified as Tiers I, II, and III. Some schools are untiered (for new schools or schools without testing) or evaluated using the Alternative Accountability Framework (for schools that serve high risk students). Tier ratings are developed using several different parameters. These include test score-based ratings like Student Progress (individual students’ academic improvement over time), Student Achievement (percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced), and Gateway Indicators (predicting future academic success). They also include measures such as School Environment (primarily attendance and re-enrollment), and Mission-Specific Performance (tailored specifically to each school to incorporate differences in their missions and methods).

While tier rankings can give an indication of schools that are performing well, they do not necessarily indicate which schools would be a good placement for each child. Only 42% of total PCS attendees attend a Tier I school. Another 42% attend Tier II schools. Tier II schools can include newer schools with an innovative educational model that makes it more difficult to immediately achieve higher test scores. Tier I schools can include schools with a more strict academic model than might be appropriate for some students. Schools evaluated under the Alternative Accountability Framework could be an excellent choice for a special needs student or adult learner.             

Aside from these caveats, tier ranking and general reviews can be useful tools for selecting a school. Drilling down into the reports generated by the PCSB can be even more useful. For example, the reports include scores generated by evaluating teacher interactions. Observers judge teachers on Emotional Support (of students), Classroom Organization, and Instructional Support (of teachers). The reports further drill down into categories such as Establishing a Culture for Learning and Managing Student Behavior. The reports also detail how schools deal with special populations such as special education and English Language Learners. Specific examples are given so that parents can get a snapshot of the day-to-day classroom proceedings before themselves visiting the class.

5. One size does not fit all -- school and class sizes

Other factors that parents might consider in looking for a charter school are the total size of the school and of individual classes. A larger school can provide more amenities but be less personal whereas a smaller school can feel more like a family but lack extras such as full time special subject teachers. Most parents look for the smallest class sizes available for their children; charter schools vary somewhat in class sizes, but in general class sizes are similar to those in public schools.

6. Do we really need a school with a swimming pool?

Charter schools rarely have physical plants that rival those of even public schools, let alone private schools, so that factor is not a huge one in choosing a school. However, some schools have the benefit of being in facilities that have always been schools whereas others are in converted buildings that might be less conducive to educational life. Likewise, charters do not have swimming pools or fancy football fields, but some have significantly more outdoor space whereas others have to take students to nearby playgrounds for outdoor time. Depending on your priorities and your child, this may be a major factor in your decision-making.

7. That Certain Something -- you will know it when you see it

Those who know me know that I put a lot of emphasis on going with your gut feelings when picking a school. After narrowing down choices based on the parameters above, parents must go to visit each school on their list to make the final determination of whether to add it to the lottery list and if yes, where to place it. When visiting,  parents should think about whether this is a place they would be pleased to send their child every day. Are the adults in the building pleased to speak with visitors? Do they seem to truly enjoy their roles with the kids? Do the kids look happy and engaged? Is there an environment of calm and nurturing? Are the classrooms orderly and inviting? Is the school administration able to articulate a clear set of goals for the school and how they achieve those goals? Do they have reasonable answers to more challenging questions?

In choosing a school parents must remember that they know their children best.

E.V. Downey is the principal educational consultant at Downey School Consulting, where she consults on public, charter, private, and special needs school choices and issues. She started consulting after years of teaching kids of all ages and working in private school administration. A graduate of DC Public Schools, E.V. lives on Capitol Hill with her husband and two children.


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