Education Pioneers Alumni Help Bring School Choice to Washington, DC

Just a few years ago, parents in Washington, DC faced a complex and confusing process to find the right public schools for their children.

Parents had to navigate 54 different application deadlines, according to Education Pioneers Alumna Maura Marino (left, EP Fellow 2007). For instance, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) operated a lottery for out-of-boundary schools and a separate lottery for selective high schools. Each DC charter network also had its own application and lottery, and many operated on different timelines.

“We knew it wasn’t enough just to help create more good schools in the city,” Maura said. “We needed to also help families easily access them.”

To provide this access, Education Pioneers Alumni, alongside other education leaders in Washington, DC, took action. They helped develop and implement My School DC, an online system that houses the common application and common lottery for DC’s traditional and public charter schools. As one of the first citywide common lottery systems in the country, My School DC revolutionizes how DC families have equitable access to learn about and apply to the schools of their choice. The story of how My School DC was created is a testament to the influence and collaboration of the Education Pioneers Alumni network.

The Road to a Citywide Common Lottery

Aryan Bocquet (left, EP Fellow 2013) didn’t know that her career path would take an exciting new direction one hot DC summer afternoon in 2013. During an Education Pioneers Fellowship workshop on the District’s local school system and panel discussion with local education leaders, Aryan (then a summer track Fellow), learned about an ambitious project to implement a common application and school lottery across Washington, DC. This system would streamline the school application process so parents could more easily and equitably apply to their choice schools. Excited about the project, Aryan approached a panelist to find out how she could get involved.

One of the panelists who spoke about the project at the workshop Aryan attended was Clara Hess (left, EP Fellow 2007), then Director of Human Capital and Strategic Initiatives at the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB).

“Launching My School DC was a massive enterprise with many pieces, all moving at lightning speed with significant risk if things went poorly,” Clara said. “But the reward was a system that would work better for kids and families.”

Aryan Bocquet (EP Fellow 2013) works the floor and keeps the energy high during December 2016’s EdFEST, held at the DC Armory. Two hundred eighteen schools were represented and over 4,000 people from throughout all eight Wards attended.

Local DC education-focused agencies across sectors collaborated to bring My School DC to life. An executive team, composed of representatives from the charter sector and DC Public Schools and led by Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, oversaw the project. Sujata Bhat(left, EP Fellow 2008) was hired as the project manager, with funding from NewSchools Venture Fund, where Maura Marino (EP Fellow 2007) was a Principal. Sujata formed a project management team (PMT), an advisory group that represented different public school perspectives, to design and launch the platform. Clara Hess represented the PCSB on the PMT, and Aryan was the next staff member hired.

Maya Martin (left, EP Fellow 2008), who was then the Director of Policy and Special Programs for Center City Public Charter Schools, also served on the PMT as a representative for the charter sector.

“Launching My School DC made me believe in the power of collaboration to create good policy that supports children and families,” Maya said.

My School DC launched in December 2013 with comprehensive information on school options and an online application window. On the day of its launch, 1,000 applications were submitted and more than 10,000 individuals visited the website. Over 95 percent of schools in DC participated in the lottery during its first year.

During this time, Vanessa Gonzalez (left, EP Fellow 2011), then Associate Partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, took over as point person on the grant to My School DC. She worked with Sujata and provided ongoing strategic support, including supporting the strategy to have My School DC become fully sustained by public funding by its fourth year. After the first iteration of My School DC launched, Sujata and her team developed the site’s School Finder, which is an online tool for families to search for schools using customizable filters such as location, as proximity to a school plays a large part in parents’ school decisions.

For the 2016-17 school year – the District’s third year under a common lottery system – My School DC received over 21,000 applications from families across all eight wards, an increase of nearly 1,000 from the previous year. This massive response stemmed from the My School DC team’s multi-year effort, led by Aryan, to get families across all wards to participate in the process.

In a region where a quarter of Black and Hispanic residents live below the poverty line and more than one in four residents speaks a primary language other than English, getting all families to participate is a challenging but essential goal.

From the beginning, the My School DC team relied on a diversified approach to community engagement, from multilingual print, radio, and social media promotion, to grassroots efforts, including knocking on doors and meeting parents at Metro transit stations. Community feedback has always been highly valued, too. After My School DC’s first year, Sujata’s team connected with families through a telephone hotline, focus groups, and online surveys to receive feedback on how to improve the process.

Showcasing School Options for DC Families

Leading into the second year of My School DC, the need for an event to showcase all public schools available to families in advance of the lottery became apparent. DC PCSB had approached the My School DC team with the offer of transferring ownership of Edufest, which had previously been a fair for charter schools, vendors, and prospective employers. With DC PCSB’s encouragement, Aryan shaped the event to be a cross-sector initiative that facilitates direct access to information on schools and the selection process to empower families to find the best fit for their child. Today, EdFEST is DC’s annual school showcase that welcomes thousands of parents and children to learn about their school options before selecting choices through My School DC.

In December 2016 in the massive DC Armory, EdFEST housed representatives from over 200 district and public charter schools, and families could also choose interpretation services in sign and multiple spoken languages, receive flu shots, sign up for spring and summer break sports camps, connect with DC agencies such as the DC Library, and more. Over 4,000 parents and kids from across all eight wards attended.

Over 4,000 parents and students explored school options and city services at EdFEST on December 10, 2016, coming from all eight wards.

Though Aryan has three EdFESTs under her belt, she still feels humbled and energized to be working on such an innovative project. “EdFEST is not only a showcase of the breadth of public school options available to DC families, but an opportunity for families – some who may not be able to visit multiple schools or attend open houses – to directly access and learn more about schools in one place,” she said.

With a background in civil rights, Aryan works to ensure that there are no language or access barriers for families when they select the ideal school for their child. And to be a part of something that her colleagues from the EP network have helped build is something for which she’s very proud.

“The networking aspect of the EP Fellowship has been priceless,” she said. “I still connect with Fellows all the time. Our shared experience during and after the Fellowship has created a unique bond.”

Whether they worked together directly or indirectly, the contributions of the EP Alumni network in Washington, DC, have led to a platform that has expanded access to traditional public and public charter schools for students throughout our nation’s capital.

Seth Gorenstein is a Manager, Learning Programs for Education Pioneers, where he works to provide EP Fellows with a high quality cohort learning experience. A former elementary school teacher, Seth knows how leadership outside of the classroom influences success within the classroom, and he is thrilled to be with an organization that is developing a new generation of education leaders. Seth has worked in a number of DC education policy and nonprofit organizations and received an MPA because he’s a wonk for effective public sector management.

By Seth Gorenstein, February 1, 2017