Families with children in the Washington, DC school system are currently on the edge of their seats: Open enrollment through the MySchoolDC lottery closed earlier this month, and results will be released in late March.
As discussed in our Eight Cities profile of D.C., one of the most unique features of D.C.’s education system is its emphasis on parent choice, within the traditional public school system (DC Public Schools, or DCPS) and the city’s large charter school sector.
Shaniola Arowolaju, a D.C. native with three children enrolled in a charter school*, is a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE). In this conversation, she talks about the barriers that she and other parents face when choosing a school and offers advice for parents and district leaders to make the enrollment and choice system more equitable for D.C.’s most vulnerable students.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in the District and attended public schools here. Can you talk more about the process of finding a school that was the right fit for you?
When I was in school, you had to go to your neighborhood school. If you wanted to go school outside of those boundaries, then you’d have to get special permission and request a change. As a student, I attended my neighborhood elementary and middle schools that were no further than a short bus ride. When I got to high school, I requested and received special permission from the district to attend another high school which had a legal services academy and a marching band. It was also located on the other side of town. So I had some choice as a student, but it required a long commute.
How did your process as a student differ from the process of choosing schools for your children?
Now the amount of choice available is better and you have the ability to choose what you feel is best for your child. When searching for schools for my children, I began by looking at schools in my area. I had a young child at the time, so I also had to worry about finding a school that was close to my daycare. Once I developed my shortlist, I visited each of the schools, spoke with the principals and faculty, and did some independent research on my own looking at test scores, teacher retention, suspensions, and other similar kinds of data. I have lots of family and friends with students in the D.C. education system, so they helped as well. Ultimately, I was pleased with the school I found, and, more importantly, my children love their school.
What information did you have access to when searching for a school?
I didn’t realize how much work it takes to find a school that you feel fits the needs of your child. There’s so much information out there. First, everyone has a website. There’s MySchool DC, DCPS, DC PCSB, and Great Schools, but it’s hard to know which sites are credible. What sold me on the school I chose wasn’t the ranking or the PCSB Tier, it was the fact that the school was college focused. My school has a specific focus on college readiness, and I want all of my kids to go to college, so that was very important to me.
What advice would you give to parents navigating the school choice process in D.C.?
My advice for parents: try not to let all of the information overwhelm you. What worked for me initially was knowing what I wanted in a school and developing my own set of parameters before I started looking. Ask yourself: “What does the ideal school for my child look and feel like?” Next, look for schools that fit within your parameters. I’d suggest you start with schools that are closest to you, or you may find a school you like that requires a long commute. Once you narrow down your list, be prepared to accept that you may not get everything you want. I don’t have everything I want, even at my current school, though I’m happy with my choice.
I would also advise parents to go and visit the schools. I went unannounced to three schools that I had on my shortlist. I visited a different times of day — arrival, dismissal, and during instruction — so I could get a sense of how the school operated. I visited one school that was supposed to be a good school, but after waiting for 20 minutes in the lobby, no one had even greeted or acknowledged me. That’s the kind of information you can only get if you go and visit a school.
What advice would you offer to education leaders in the D.C.?
There’s a ton of information available to families, but I don’t think the city has done a good job of making parents aware that this information exists and where to find it. For some parents, it feels like you have to jump through hoops or know somebody who already has the information that you need. For example, the Office of the Student Advocate is available to help parents advocate for their child and get them resources. Most parents don’t even know that this office exists, and I only know about it because of my work with PAVE.
This lack of information puts parents at a disadvantage. I’d suggest that general resources about school choice and quality are placed inside each and every school, recreational center, and library. I believe that we need to give parents whatever resources they need — they shouldn’t have to fight for them.
* We have anonymized the schools referenced by interviewees — our goal is to highlight local experiences and allow interviewees to be candid. In the interest of transparency please note that some schools, districts, or networks mentioned have been Bellwether clients. A full list of all our past and current clients is available on our website here.