DC Public Schools
Public school in DC has come a long way. Many will argue that this is a tale of two cities, though, with “west of the park” and “east of the park” being a dividing line. But that has changed as well as a lot of other things about public school in DC, so let’s dive in because there’s a lot of good stuff to cover.
One disclaimer. You know those parents who are all up in the teacher’s faces and complaining about curriculums and such? That’s not me. I’m a hands-off parent. I’m busy selling houses for my clients and running a corgi rescue and I don’t have time to question every decision made by the school. Only when something affects my children or our family does the school hear from me. If you’re more hands on then just know I’m giving you an overview here of my impressions.
DC Public Schools – About the Lottery
Many people have heard about this confusing DC Lottery system for public and charter education in DC. You are guaranteed a seat for your in-boundary school for grades K – 12. Where the lottery comes into play is if you want one of the following:
- A Pre-K seat
- A different school than your in-boundary for any grade level
- A charter school
Free Pre-K In boundary is definitely a perk, but I would never recommend buying your home based on hopes of getting a Pre-K spot in that school. It’s not easy to get a Pre-K spot, but gold if you do get one.
DC also has charter schools. Why would someone want a charter school if they have a decent in boundary school? Several reasons. Some charters have different teaching styles or Spanish or Chinese language immersion, and that can be very appealing to families in a city that’s very international like DC.
I have a separate video on the DC Lottery Process which I’ll link, so you can dive into that as well if that applies to you.
DC Public Schools – Academics
As far as academics go, how involved you are as a parent will determine what you think of DC. If you’re a hands-on parent who values public education, this will work for you. You will have to help your kids through. If you’re of the variety who has too much to do then explaining to your 2nd grader how to subtract 4 from 62 by breaking 62 into groupings of 50 and 12, then subtracting 4 from 12, which is 8, and adding it to the 50, then you, like me will cry.
The elementary schools overall fare much better on reputation than middle and high schools. You will still find many families who will not stay through middle and high school. In our own school, several families are pulling their kids out to go to private schools or they plan to move out of DC.
DC Public Schools – Extracurriculars
My impression of DCPS extracurriculars is that they suffer tremendously. These are city schools. Many are overcrowded and struggle to find space for regular in-school specials as they are called – like art and music. There are some extracurriculars but it’s all school-dependent. Some are run through the aftercare programs, some people find leagues or other things outside of school. Suffice it to say, unless you have a child in a popular sport that translates to college scholarships, like football, you will probably find extracurriculars lacking.
DC Public Schools – Administration
The school system is overseen by a Chancellor. There have been many years of scandal through the decades and it feels like everything is tracking well right now under Chancellor Ferebee (although I did send him a nasty-gram when he announced in April or May, that they were adding a Monday to the end of the school year.) No, Chancellor Ferebee. Your photo is very cute, you seem very nice and communicative, your career history is impressive, but you are not taking a day away from Mama’s Summer with her Girls.
In 2007, the Mayor’s office assumed responsibility for administering the schools under OSSE, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The DC Board of Education has little impact in DC, but they do exist!
There are currently 8 public high schools in DC which your child would have a right to attend based on boundary. There are plans to build a 9th High School in the Palisades area, which is being referred to as MacArthur High School. There are 6 specialty high schools which are application based but also public. There are 14 middle schools and 65 elementary schools. There are also 15 education campuses which would span grades throughout several school types – elementary, middle, high school.
All of this aside, your school’s Principal has to be strong, and they have to run the school like its their own. That means, they need to push back when things aren’t right. Someone high ranking at an elementary school told me, “We do what’s right for us no matter what DCPS says” and I love this.
DC Public Schools – No Child Left Behind
DC Schools historically have suffered. Over the 17 years I’ve lived in DC, some schools have been closed down completely. But others changed course and became highly ranked with superior testing scores. But here’s what you need to know – and this is a very hard truth to fully comprehend. the socio-economic disparity in the city is huge. There are two very distinct extremes with the families of DC school kids plus everyone along the continuum. DCPS has to make decisions that may not make sense unless you realize we’re all in this together and you’re not in a bubble. What does this mean?
We have a 9-week summer. And it’s seemingly getting shorter all the time. Why is this? Because there are kids who won’t eat unless they are in school. This means there are many vacations during the year. Because of that 9-week summer and because of the families on the survey who say that the “February” or “April” break is crucial for their family to get away. And before you think I’m making this up, DCPS sent out a survey a couple years back asking for opinions on the school calendar. And the results were like on a google drive somewhere that was public and you could read what everyone wrote. So just know that there will be families skiing in Vail in February and families struggling to get food on the table that same week. And DCPS has to balance all of that.
I find the short summer to be a royal onion in my ointment. And I find all the days off during the year to be so disruptive. You have to be okay with this because this affects everyone’s lives in the family, not just the kids.
During Covid when everyone was home schooling, there were neighborhoods where the kids were running around playing all day because their parents were critical employees who needed to report for work. Or their parents were unable to manage their schooling needs. This was evident when the classes were on zoom and it was really sad to see.
Some schools have had teachers change up to 4 times during the year for kindergarten. And if you think “how bad could kindergarteners be to make 4 teachers leave,” it can start before kindergarten. My daughter was in a community center Pre-K which put all ages into one class. There was a 5-year-old boy who almost broke her arm, and a 4 year old girl who would yell obscenities and scream that she was going to get her gun and call her lawyer. They called child services on that family, and we withdrew the next day and went to a private pre-school.
When it comes to grading and testing, teachers are bonused. A Principal of a high school I won’t name had specifically instructed all teachers to make sure no one got bad grades prior to graduation. That Principal went on to say that if anyone lost a college acceptance or a scholarship because of their grades in 12th grade, that teacher would be held responsible.
Something else to understand about DC – no child left behind applies to foreign students too. All in-boundary students are guaranteed a seat in the local school. My kid’s elementary school is in the same boundary as the Russian Embassy. So about 25% of the school is comprised of Russian students. Foreign Diplomats have just as much right to the Pre-K spots as any DC kid. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Embassy instructed families to withdraw their children. Just like that, 1/3 of the school population disappeared.
Now, as we head into a new school year, if those children don’t come back, then those seats get filled with other students from other neighborhoods. The administration strongly pushes schools to take kids from the waitlists, and rumor-proven-fact says that 1 minority child is worth 2 white children to DCPS, and teachers are bonused for out of boundary (read: minority) children scoring well. If that isn’t maddening, sad and unfair, like a Ginzu knive, but wait, there’s more.
Let’s say the Russian families come back, we’ll have a school that’s 25% over capacity. This is a problem. Like many schools, DC struggles with class sizes and keeping things manageable for teachers. My daughter had 30 kids in her 2nd grade class. Her teacher was in his early 20’s and admittedly could not handle the class. If you could have seen the classroom, you would have yelled this is a damn fire hazard. And it was. Because space was at a premium, the kids had to keep their coats and backpacks out in the hall.
And then kid’s lunches and coats were stolen. These are the things that I find maddening, that cannot be controlled.
But, we’re still here. And the truth is, that through elementary school, I’ve been so blown away by my kid’s teachers that I’m sad to see every year come to an end. Next year I will have a middle schooler and I’m biting my nails hard for this. The middle school has turned around in the past 5-7 years under the guidance of a beloved Principal who has now left to work at a school closer to his family. There’s a new high school coming as well which will alleviate the overcrowding at the former Wilson High, now known as Jackson-Reed High School.
DC has no state schools. However, in lieu of that, they currently have the TAG Program. TAG stands for Tuition Assistance Grant. This program is fantastic, but it’s always in jeopardy so just double check before you count on this. TAG offers DC kids $10,000 per year toward any out of state tuition at a state college or university. Sometimes the program has run out of funding. And it’s often under fire, but as of right now, it still exists.
As I said, we are still here. Some of my kid’s friends have begun the flight to private schools or are making plans to go to the suburbs for middle school. And we talked about this but, if I found it bad enough here, I would leave. I like to make fun, but I wouldn’t trade the privilege of raising my kids in a city for a chance at “better” schools.