Just over 3 percent of applicants got into Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School this year, making the D.C. elementary and middle school more selective than Harvard University.
E.L. Haynes Public Charter School is slightly more competitive than Columbia University. The Ivy League school admitted 6.9 percent this year, while E.L. Haynes admitted 6.8 percent.
As the city's public charter schools grow more popular, the difficulty of securing a spot in top-performing schools has become exasperating for parents.
"It's been so frustrating and so overwhelming all at the same time," said Melanie Colburn, whose 3-year-old son has been waitlisted at 10 charters. On the waitlists at Capital City and Two Rivers, two of her top choices, her son is number 298 and 366, respectively.
|Other schools planning to add seats|
|• Carlos Rosario Public Charter School, which offers adult education, plans to add 200 seats.|
|• E.L. Haynes Public Charter School plans to add 182 seats to accommodate new 11th and 12th-grade classes in the next two years.|
|• Creative Minds Public Charter School has asked to add 12 seats, but the Public Charter School Board has recommended denying the request since the school is in its first year and lacks achievement data.|
|• Education Strengthens Families Public Charter School has asked to add 12 seats and change its name to Briya Public Charter School.|
|• Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School plans to add 47 seats, including 21 in a new sixth grade.|
|• The Next Step Public Charter School plans to add 100 seats.|
The uncertainty has led Colburn to keep her son at his private school. "I'm not the kind of person to take chances, and I can't wait until September -- personally, for peace of mind, I'm not going to play the game."
The city's 57 charters on 102 campuses enroll 34,673 students, 43 percent of the students in the District's public schools. Meanwhile, the traditional DC Public Schools system plans to close 15 underenrolled schools, a move city leaders say pushes more families to charters.
Charter schools are trying to keep up with the growing demand by adding more seats.
On Monday, the D.C. Public Charter School Board is scheduled to review requests to increase enrollment at 11 schools, nine of which the board's staff has recommended approving.
KIPP D.C. Public Charter School, a top-performing school with campuses nationwide, plans to add 586 seats, including 250 at a new campus in Ward 5. With 3,041 students enrolled, KIPP has a waitlist with 2,500 students, up from 1,700 two years ago and 500 students two years before that.
Other charters are planning smaller bumps -- Excel Academy plans to add 20 students -- or adding grades. D.C. Preparatory Academy plans to add 100 seats, most in a new fourth-grade class at its Benning Road middle school campus. Paul is adding 135 students, including 110 10th graders.
Four new charter schools are slated to open in the fall. And at a hearing last week, the charter board heard from nine applicants that want to open schools in 2014-2015. The board has approved Rocketship Education DC to open two schools in 2015.
But just as schools are opening, others close, said charter board spokeswoman Theola Labbe-DeBose, preventing the city from being oversaturated and keeping demand high. Of the 95 charter schools approved since 1996, 35 have closed.
For the remaining schools, the
admissions cycle began in January with open houses and the packed
D.C. Public Charter School Expo. Schools could continue to see a revolving door of students until a few weeks after school has started.
"Basically everyone applies to basically all the charter schools," said Steve Sipos, whose son is in the first grade at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School and on the waitlist at Capital City. "You get waitlisted at all of them, and then as people move into the ones ahead of them, people keep moving around and doing a kind of dance."
Pre-kindergarten is especially competitive since DCPS does not guarantee seats in neighborhood schools until kindergarten, Sipos said.
Charters give siblings of enrolled students the first shot at open seats, increasing the pressure. At Stokes, every pre-kindergarten seat was filled by siblings, causing many of the roughly 1,000 applicants to walk away unhappy from Thursday night's lottery drawing.
"At least nobody cried," said Linda Moore, the school's founder and executive director. "The last few years ... lots of people left crying -- parents and students."