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D.C. Enrollment Plan Includes Common Form for Charters, Traditional Schools

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Charter school and District of Columbia school district officials have rolled out a universal enrollment system for students there, reports the Washington Post.

The new system will allow all students within the district to apply to both public and (most) charter schools of their choice through one common lottery that uses an algorithm to match each student with a single, best offer. It's a trend that helps eliminate the churn that otherwise occurs leading up to and even within the first few weeks of the school year when some students who are accepted to multiple schools decide where to go while others who weren't offered a space at all scramble to find a suitable spot.

Ram Uppuluri, a senior policy advisor for FOCUS DC (which stands for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools), said he hopes the move also instills more transparency and confidence in the lottery system.

"We have such high demand for charters here in the district with 20,000 people on waitlists for our charter schools last year. There can always be a suspicion, whether founded or not, that schools are being selective in who they let in," he said in an interview with Education Week. "This system allows you to take that suspcion completely off the table because [the lottery] is done in a wholly accountable way."

Other cities have moved to universal enrollment systems as well—most notably Denver and New Orleans.

Fourteen charter schools in the Washington area have decided not to participate in the program, according to My School DC, which is heading up the new lottery system.

Keeping the system voluntary for charter schools was a major sticking point for charter advocates, said Uppuluri, from FOCUS DC. "At the outset we felt as though we were really concerned that this would strip charter schools of essential elements of their autonomy," he said. "We tried to find ways to encourage the people designing the system to desgn it in a way that keep that personal nature of the relationship between student and schools in tact while providing the services to take administrative burdens off the schools," such as allowing charters to opt-in to the system rather than mandating participation. 

To apply, families may list up to 12 schools, ranked in order of their preference. Applications will be available starting Dec. 16 and are due by Feb. 3 for high school students and March 3 for early childhood, elementary, and middle school students for enrollment in the 2014-15 school year.

Unlike universal enrollment systems in other cities, students who do not get into their first choice school will automatically be placed on the waitlist of all the schools they ranked higher than the offer they received. For example, if a student receives an offer for his or her fourth-ranked school, he or she will automatically be placed on the waitlists for his or her top three preferences.  

The lottery algorithm will take into consideration certain preferences, such as where the student's siblings are currently enrolled.

In addition to eliminating the beginning-of-the-year shuffle, which will allow both families and schools to better plan for the school year, officials hope that by moving to one timeline with one application, it will make the otherwise burdensome enrollment process easier on parents.

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