DCPS Lottery

Whenever there’s a question about DC Public Schools and their “clear as mud” lottery system, several people in my brokerage like to point to me. I mean, they point to me for a lot of stuff like “Who stole my space heater?” (sorry Lisa) “Who has the white out?” (I have a paper planner and I like to keep it ACCURATE) and “Who ordered this stinky cabbage from the Chinese Restaurant”?” (It’s me and work-wife. It’s always me and work-wife.)

“So, what is the DCPS lottery and what the hell do you mean my kid can’t go to the school I can see from our front door?”

Buckle up, mofo’s, you are in for a ride.

Here are some hard and fast rules that never change. Keep these in mind as we discuss.

1) Your child is never guaranteed a seat in public school anywhere in the city until Kindergarten.

2) Your child is always guaranteed a seat in public school from grades K – 12, at your in-boundary assigned school.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that Rules 1 and 2 seem perfectly logical and why even mention them. Well, about half of the people get stumped on Rule #1. All they hear is “free Pre-K” and they’ve sold their house in Maryland or Virginia, moved to DC, dropped their kid at the front door of the neighborhood school on day 1 and peeled out of the front circle. If you even bothered to look back, you would have seen this.


Except that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!

No one is guaranteed shit until the age of 5. If your kid is 5 on or before September 30, they may enroll in Kindergarten at their in-boundary school.

You have a child in K-12 and you are going to send them to your in-bound school? Great. You’re done here. Go tell the Barista you want yours to go and get on out of here. The rest of you, listen up.

Anyone who wants to apply for PK-3, PK-4, a school that is not their assigned in-boundary no matter what grade, or a charter school IS OFFICIALLY PART OF THE LOTTERY.

Here’s what you need to know. This is the priority on which all DCPS lottery decisions are made:

  1. Child lives In Boundary, with a sibling already in the school.
  2. Child lives In Boundary, without a sibling already in the school.
  3. Child lives Out of Boundary, with a sibling already in the school.
  4. Child lives Out of Boundary, without a sibling already in the school.

This means that you could have scored a spot for your Sally, even though you live out of boundary, but Sally’s younger sister may not get a spot when it’s her turn, if a child who lives in boundary without another sibling in the school wants that school.

Here’s something else you need to know. The lottery is unequally equal. What the hell does that mean? It means you’re nothing, even when you sort of should be. A family who has never been on this continent can move here from 10,000 miles away for a one year job. They can fill out the lottery application without even living here, as long as they have their DC address, and can prove it by the start of school. Their child has just as much of a chance as yours does to that coveted Pre-K space. Yes, even if you were born here, even if you have been paying taxes here for your whole life, even if you went to that school as a child. DC does not have any system in place to prioritize the children of families who are domiciled here.

If you think you can dodge this order because you’re charming or you know people, take note. The powers that be at DCPS may be a colossal joke but they take the lottery very seriously. This city may run just as incompetently and corruptly as it always has, but the DCPS lottery is no joke. Case in point: Chancellor Antwan Wilson made it a whole year on the job before his resignation/termination. He had called in a favor to jump the lottery and get his daughter into a different high school. You can just keep clicking links to see the prior Chancellor, Kaya Henderson’s story. She lasted 6 years but she also played the jump the lottery game for various high ranking people in the Mayor’s Cabinet.

The history of the Chancellors before Henderson (pre-2007 they were called “Superintendents”) is spotty and varied. No real surprise that the whole school system is a disaster when you see the constant changes in leadership going back to the 1970’s. Thank your lucky stars for the parents and teachers who came before us to have accomplished what they have. But, that’s a post for another day.

So let’s finish up the lottery. The deadline for high school is February 1 every year, and the deadline for PK through 8th grade is March 1 every year. Results come out May 1.

When you get your results, here’s what you do next:


Why am I yelling? Because you need to enroll your child. There are so many other people whose lives are hanging in the balance so I beg you to have some compassion for your neighbors, fellow parents and the school staff. Everyone is waiting on this information. There will inevitably be people who move to DC from another country the night before school starts, speak little to no English, who plop down in the school office on the first day.

This is where the school’s office staff shines. They scramble to complete paperwork and find the newbie a seat in a class – ever so careful to consider the current students in a class so as not to disrupt balance for the teacher. The arrival of a new student at the classroom door will surprise a teacher who forfeited the last 2 weeks of their summer to prepare a classroom for the children on their list. Now there’s a last minute addition for which they weren’t prepared.

The teacher smiles, and welcomes the child in, quickly making them feel at home as they gracefully glide around the room pulling a desk from here and a chair from there, not showing an ounce of the stress they suddenly feel. The addition of a child who woke up yesterday in their home country and is on the verge of tears is the equivalent of 3 children with the language barrier among other issues to overcome. If you’re watching, your eyes get misty because you realize, this teacher, loves their job so much. A ton more work just arrived in their lap and do they get more money?

Nope. But you will never notice the difference in their attitude because they won’t let you see. Not the good ones, anyway. And we’ve been amazingly lucky to have snagged some amazing teachers for our kids thus far. So when my ire at DCPS surfaces, it’s never about the teachers and staff who are on the ground, doing what they do every day. It’s about the f*ckery that happens “downtown” where the leadership is.

We’ve got a new Chancellor. We should all cross our fingers.