Greater Greater Washington

Backward and forward in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.


90 bus. Photo by Caroline Angelo.


7000 series. Photo by nevermindtheend.


Rosslyn. Photo by Casey Labrack.


14th Street. Photo by Joe Flood.


Photo by nevermindtheend.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Anacostia’s larger-than-life Big Chair is full of neighborhood history

There's a humongous chair at the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and V Street in Anacostia, named, appropriately, the Big Chair. And while it is quite the spectacle, the Big Chair is also a symbol of economic opportunity in the neighborhood.


Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Curtis Brothers Furniture, which sat on what was then Nichols Avenue, built the Big Chair in 1959. Ever since, even when it held the title of biggest chair in the world, it's been a homegrown landmark, out of sight of the monumental core.

Alice in "The Looking Glass House"

To distinguish themselves in the competitive home decor marketplace, the brothers launched a marketing idea that would immortalize them in Anacostia folklore.


A full-page ad ran in the Evening Star on August 12, 1960 advertising "Alice in the Looking Glass House." Photo from the DC Public Library, Special Collections.

On August 13, 1960, amidst the summer's heat and humidity, 21-year old Lynn Arnold began living atop the Big Chair in a 10-by-10 foot glass house complete with a balcony. "See her sleep, eat, exercise and sun bathe, a site you'll remember for years to come," read a full-page advertisement in the Evening Star alluding to the sequel of the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Lynn had been offered the job while shopping at Curtis Brothers.

After 42 days, Arnold came down from "the smallest efficiency apartment in town." She told the Star, "I was in the store buying furniture for my own apartment when they asked me if I'd like the job. I've done a lot of modeling and the pay for this was a great deal."

Throughout her stay atop the big chair, Lynn's husband came to visit, and they often spoke on the phone. Lynn's accommodations included wall-to-wall carpet, TV, radio and a bathroom and shower covered by a wooden wall. In order to eat everyday Lynn lifted her meals up on a tray.

"If I had the same decision to make I still would have done it," Lynn, told a reporter. "But I wouldn't ever do it twice. I was never really lonely. After a day of people staring I was more than ready to close the curtains and be a bit alone."

Upgrades to the Big Chair

Curtis Brothers survived the 1968 riots unscathed (by posting employees outside its doors with shotguns, according to long-time residents), but the business closed its showroom and warehouse in the mid-1970s.

By the early 2000s the original Big Chair, made of mahogany, was deteriorating. Numerous holes in the seat had been patched with concrete, and in August 2005, the original chair was removed.

Eight months later, however, a $40,000 aluminum replica went up in the Big Chair's original location.

A "symbol of hope"

Today, the Big Chair endures as an over-sized emblem of Anacostia. A bar and grill across the street and a now-closed flea market use its namesake, and it nearly got its own ale named after it at Chocolate City Beer.

"Curtis Brothers was the Marlo Furniture of its time, and all sorts of festivities happened around the chair such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny being in the seat during the holidays," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, who as a student at nearby Birney Elementary School recalls taking field trips to the Big Chair.

"It was a sign of economic of progress for the neighborhood, and not just one of the best marketing moves in downtown Anacostia, but maybe in the history of our city," Johnson says.

Anacostia's revitalization has been in the forecast for decades, but it has yet to arrive. The Big Chair is a reminder of the neighborhood's economic potential.

"That chair has endured good times, bad times and good times reborn," Johnson declared. "It is a symbol of hope for this community."

Tax benefit changes and better options are hurting transit ridership

While Americans took a record number of trips on public transportation last year, ridership numbers in our region are down.


Photo by Bill Couch on Flickr.

There are several potential reasons for the region's dip, but two in particular warrant consideration: changes to commuter tax benefits, and better alternatives to traditional transit.

Nationwide, Americans made 10.75 billion trips by transit in 2014, according to annual ridership statistics released this month by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

That's up from 10.65 billion trips in 2013, with the number of trips outpacing population growth. In a year of low gasoline prices, the increase is welcome news for the transit industry.

But CityLab's Eric Jaffe has advised caution about reading too much into these numbers, pointing out that New York City's transit ridership skews the data, and that overall, bus ridership is down.

Moreover, the Washington metro region's ridership numbers have declined. Apart from the ART Bus in Arlington, our region's use of public transportation declined between 2013 and 2014. The decreases are not dramatic, but they are still worrisome.

Commuter tax benefit changes are hurting ridership

The commuter pre-tax benefit allows participating employees to deduct the cost of their commuting expenses, tax-free, from their paychecks. The transit benefit was reduced, effective January 1, 2014, to a level for transit ($130 maximum per month) that's roughly half that of parking ($250). This made news back in November when TransitCenter released a report pointing out that the federal government is basically subsidizing congestion.

Transit advocates and transportation planners fear the transit reduction because of the potential incentives it creates. Because the transit benefit is so much less than the parking benefit, driving appears to be considerably more attractive in comparison.

In case anyone still doubts that federal tax policy can influence commuting behavior, the news from WMATA isn't good. PlanItMetro has released data showing that the reduction of the transit benefit is at least partially responsible for a decline in Metro ridership in 2014.

WMATA estimates that the lower transit benefit results in 25 percent of its riders running out of SmarTrip benefits before the end of each month. This is 40 percent more than the year prior.


Graph from PlanItMetro.

While some riders replenish the amounts on their SmarTrip cards when their monthly benefits run out, many do not. This explains why Metro ridership in 2014 was higher at the beginning of each month than the end, and why ridership on Metro was down for the year overall.

With its large number of federal workers, our region certainly feels the impact of the reduced transit benefit more than other areas. Organizations such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) have called for immediate action by Congress to restore the transit benefit to a level equal to the parking benefit.

Kelley Coyner, executive director of NVTC, said "Restoring parity for the commuter tax benefit will keep transit riders on Metro, ART, and other transit systems all month long. Now ridership goes down when the benefit runs out. Lower ridership means more congestion and lost revenue to transit."

Two bills in Congress right now, the Transit Tax Parity Act of 2015 (HR 1043, Rep. Holmes-Norton) and the Commuter Parity Act of 2015 (HR 990, Rep. King) would restore parity between the transit and parking benefit permanently.

Some transit riders now have better options

Another potential reason for Washington's lower transit ridership numbers is that our region has more options, notably Capital Bikeshare. As bikesharing stations have proliferated, commuters have another transportation option that's not only being utilized as a connection to bus and rail, but often as a commute mode in its own right.

Public transportation agencies like WMATA, meanwhile, have an improved, holistic, view of transportation these days. Capital Bikeshare, the largest and most successful bikeshare systyem in the US, is no longer considered a competitor to public transit so much as a complement to it.

And although proponents of bikesharing services like to refer to them as "bike transit," ridership numbers are not included in the APTA public transportation data. With 2.8 million trips taken on Capital Bikeshare in 2014 (and increasing), bikeshare trips aren't insubstantial.

According to Paul DeMaio, an Arlington County consultant largely responsible for the creation of Capital Bikeshare, the system has "both pulled trips from Metrorail and Metrobus and helped folks get to rail and bus. With CaBi trips mainly taken in the urban core of the region, bikeshare has assisted slightly in lowering the peak-period crush on Metrorail and Metrobus." In other words, yes DC, your lower transit trips might be for a good reason.

Chris Hamilton, bureau chief of Arlington County Commuter Services, downplays the significance of any regional trends. He said something that's "happening on the ground in that individual place" isn't indicative of what a long-term trend might be. Localities, he added, should only be worried about lower transit ridership if drive-alone rates are increasing.

In DC and Arlington, that trend has not been seen yet. Arlington County prides itself, in fact, on moving more people without increasing traffic on its arterial roads, largely through employment of transportation demand management techniques that inform and educate citizens about their options.

Hamilton echoed DeMaio's sentiment, saying, "Perhaps in those cases when transit is down a little bit, people are taking advantage of biking, walking, and shared rides more. As long as people continue to use options, like they are in Arlington, that's good for cities."

Cross-posted from Mobility Lab.

A bikeable suburban highway? One Ohio town pulled it off

Wide suburban highways lined with big boxes and strip malls aren't usually places one finds protected bikeways. But Stringtown Road in Grove City, Ohio is such a place. Check it out:


Stringtown Road. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Since a curb protects the bikeway from the road, it's technically a sidepath, a sidewalk that's for bikes instead of pedestrians.

And as you can see in photos from Google Street View, it's nicer than riding in the street with fast-moving cars, but it's still not exactly pleasant.

Huge curb cuts interrupt the bikeway, so cars don't need to slow down much before pulling into the giant parking lots lining the road. There's certainly a risk that careless drivers will turn without watching, and hit people on bikes.

But that's a risk that will exist for any car-oriented highway. At least this one puts the bike lane front and center, just about as visible as it can be.

There are some sidepaths along large roads in the DC area, like Route 50 in Arlington or along Benning Road near RFK, but those aren't commercial highways lined with shops, and their sidepaths aren't right against the curb like Stringtown's. This particular layout is pretty unusual.

As more and more suburban communities evolve to become more multimodal, experiments like this will help everyone around the country understand what works and what doesn't. Grove City is near Columbus, where it's not the only suburb experimenting with urban retrofits.

What do you think? Will this design work? Tell us in the comments.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Breakfast links: Happy birthday Metro


Photo by Bengt 1955 on Flickr.
In with the new: The first of Metro's new 7000-series cars will begin passenger service on April 14. The new cars feature several safety improvements, an automated PA system, LED information screens, and a more comfortable seat design.

Arch Madness: Give Metro a birthday present and vote for their iconic station design in "Arch Madness." Two other projects in our area, Dulles Airport and the National Gallery of Art, made it to the Elite Eight. This round's voting ends at 3pm. (Architect Magazine)

Fear and loathing: Metro employees shared their biggest safety concerns including physical assault, malfunctioning equipment, and limited MTPD presence in stations. Workers also fear that managers will discipline them for speaking up. (WAMU)

Feed the rush: DDOT will test a new program that varies parking rates based on real-time demand. Installation began last week on the 1,300-space pilot in Chinatown, which has an anticipated opening in May. (District Source)

Move that bus!: The Metroway bus service will get another mile of dedicated lanes in Arlington this summer. Arlington also has plans to add rush hour bus lanes for the route around Crystal City. (Post)

Tune in for transit: Today at 12:30 David Alpert, GGW's fearless founder, will talk the politics of Metro and other transit battles on WAMU's Politics Hour with Kojo Nmandi and Tom Sherwood. Elissa Silverman also joins as a guest.

Beefed up bikeshare: Rearranging bikeshare docks to optimize bike availability and station access could increase ridership by nearly 30%. With Capital Bikeshare's ongoing supplier problems, this could serve as a temporary stop-gap measure. (Streetsblog)

Partisan parking: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton's recent parking job was a mess, but she's not DC's only politician parking offender. Jack Evans takes the number one spot on this list of poor parkers. (DCist)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Here are some original answers to whichWMATA week 44

On Tuesday, we posted our forty-fourth photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in the Metro system. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 37 guesses. Twenty-five of you got all five right. Only twelve of those, though, figured out the theme. Those twelve are: JamesDCane, Mike B, Andrew, Peter K, mklkmkwk, coneyraven, endash, Maris, JPJ, RyanS, Julian, and MDL. Great work!


Image 1: Metro Center

A lot of you guessed the theme to be that all five stations were on the Red Line. It's correct that they are, but that wasn't the theme. These five stations were the first five Metro stations in the system to open. When Metro opened its doors to passengers on March 27, 1976, the Red Line ran from Rhode Island Avenue to Farragut North. Tomorrow is the 39th birthday of these five stations!

In case you're confused, the reason two stations in this stretch are absent is because they didn't open with the rest of the system. NoMa didn't come along until 2004, when it became Metro's first infill station. And Gallery Place didn't open until December 15th of 1976 because a court injunction prevented the station from opening without a working elevator.

The first image shows the crossvault at Metro Center. You can tell this is Metro Center rather than L'Enfant Plaza because the triangular coffers go all the way to the center of the vault rather than stopping short. We taught you how to tell the difference between transfer stations in week 5. All 37 of you knew this was Metro Center.


Image 2: Farragut North

The second image shows the mezzanine at Farragut North. It should have been very obvious that this was a Red Line station since you can read "Shady Grove" and "Grsvnr" on signs. This has to be Farragut North because of the configuration of the mezzanine, which is above the tracks but open above the platform. This is the inverse of the arrangement at all the other underground stations, where the mezzanine stays above the platform, leaving the tracks open to above. Thirty-four of you got this one right.


Image 3: Judiciary Square

This image shows the station entrance pylon for the eastern entrance to Judiciary Square station. In addition to the red stripe telling you this was a Red Line station, the main clue is the building in the background, One Judiciary Square. The same façade was featured in week 34. Thirty-four of you guessed correctly.


Image 4: Rhode Island Avenue

The fourth image shows the path leading to the pedestrian bridge over Rhode Island Avenue, taken from the north end of the eponymous station. This path is distinctive because it's nearly perfectly circular and is easily visible from trains on the Red Line. Thirty-one of you recognized it.


Image 5: Union Station

The final image shows a sign at Union Station. While there aren't many other clues here, the sign and its orientation should have been enough. The only "waffle" stations on the Red Line are the six in the stretch from Union Station to Dupont Circle. Of those stations, only two have island platforms, which you can tell must be the case here given the direction of the arrow and the vantage point near the center of the vault.

It can't be Farragut North because that station has an almost full-length mezzanine (see image 2). Thirty-two of you figured this one out.

Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week.

Cities Skylines takes over SimCity's mantle as top city-builder

Those of you who've dreamed of having their own city to build from the ground up now have a new virtual way to make it happen: A computer game called Cities: Skylines.


Gameplay in Cities: Skylines. All photos by the author.

Like in the popular SimCity franchise, the player acts as the mayor, responsible for building the infrastructure needed for the city to work. That includes building streets, a power grid, parks, schools, public safety, and zoning land for development.

As your city reaches population milestones, additional features are unlocked. These, in turn, make it possible for your city to continue to grow.


Streets and buildings aren't limited to right angles.

Skylines comes from the team responsible for the well-received transit simulation games Cities in Motion and Cities in Motion 2. With Cities: Skylines, they've taken the step up from transportation simulation to full city-builder.

After the disappointing release of SimCity 5 in 2013, this game is a welcome improvement in the genre.

Like SimCity 5, roads are no longer bound to a strict 90-degree grid. Players can build curved roads or grids that are skewed at different angles, which helps give cities a more realistic appearance.


Bus and subway lines shown when in the transit menu.

On the other hand, one big change from SimCity 5 is the ability to draw bus lines and build subways and commuter rail. In the most recent SimCity, players could place bus stops, but buses just drove randomly to stops based on where the most people aboard wanted to go.

In Cities: Skylines, players can draw actual bus and rail lines. Buses will actually follow the lines you draw, and stop where you designate stops. One limitation, though, is that while you can set overall service levels for all buses throughout the city, you can't add additional service to any one line.

Another important change from SimCity 5 is that in Skylines, the subway is back. Many SimCity players were disappointed when SC5 came out without the ability to build subways. But Skylines does have subway stations and players can draw subway services just like bus and commuter rail lines.


The game has zones for residential, commercial (retail), industrial, and office.

Like other city-builders, Skylines includes zones. In addition to the traditional SimCity set of residential, commercial, and industrial zones, Skylines has added an office zone to the mix, which allows you to provide jobs for educated workers.

The residential and commercial zones have a low-density and a high-density variant.

Unfortunately, like the city-builders that have come before, Skylines does not have a mixed-use zone. While most cities in the real world have residential or office over retail, Skylines (and SimCity) still only recognize single-use zones.

However, it is possible to create mixed-use districts. When I build a neighborhood, I invariably put a commercial zone in the center, surrounded by residential. If demand warrants, I'll sometimes sprinkle office in as well.

That sort of development pattern does make a difference, because the sims in the game will walk or take transit when that's the best mode, and will drive when things are too far.

Of course, even when you try to build suburban-style development with far-separated uses, the buildings in the game are largely urban-format, with facades built right up to the sidewalk. You won't see a sea of parking surrounding big-box retail uses. That's not part of the simulation.


Mayors can annex additional territory as their cities grow.

Unlike SimCity 4 and 5, Skylines does not feature a region mode. Each map has just one city. However, a key improvement is that mayors can "annex" land as their city grows.

Many players of SimCity 5 were disappointed that each city was in a little pod off a freeway, with no ability to draw connections across the city limits. In Skylines, your city will start off about the same size as one of SimCity 5's individual cities.

But as your city reaches population thresholds, you can add adjacent tiles, and you can build connections across the (former) boundary. If you don't like the freeway connecting your pod to the outside world, you can annex that territory and rebuild it to suit your fancy.

You can't annex unlimited land, though. You can only add eight or nine additional squares to your city. But your city can be shaped oddly to take advantage of natural features or resources.


Players can create and name districts.

I think one of the coolest features is the ability to paint and name districts. The simplest use for this feature is just to name neighborhoods.

But there's actually more functionality than that. The player can actually define policies for each district. For example, you might make transit free in the Downtown district. Or you could ban high-rises in leafy Chestnut Hill. Or if you want to incentivize small businesses in LoDo, you can give them tax breaks.

Another use for districts is to allow industry specialization. If you have an oil field under part of your city, you can paint a district which will focus oil-specialized industries. But if you don't do that, your industries will just import the resources they need.


Every person in the game has a real home and job and can be followed.

One very cool feature, which has been carried forward from the Cities in Motion franchise, is the ability to follow sims around. And these sims are semi-permanent features of your city. As long as you don't demolish their residence, once they move in, you can follow them forever. They'll go to school or find work. They'll shop and recreate.

Following them around may help you figure out how to improve the transportation network. Or it may just give you a sense of the complexity of the simulation. You can also rename them if you want. Almost everything in the game can be renamed.

This contrasts very sharply to SimCity 5, where the sims are not permanent. In that game, the sims will leave work and go to the first unoccupied residence. And then they'll cease to exist. Until the next day when they go to the closest available job (which may not be the same as the day before).


Mayors still have to manage public facilities.

Of course, managing public services is an important part of the mayor's job. Making sure that there are enough classrooms in the school district is something common to most city-builders. Skylines is no different.

The game does have one drawback over SC5, though. In the most recent SimCity, you could expand most public facilities. For example, you might build an addition onto a school.

In Skylines, you cannot do that. You just have to build a new facility to meet the demand.


Data views are well-designed. Here's the fire coverage map.

Also like in the new SimCity, Skylines has great data visualization tools. The screenshot above shows fire protection coverage. The individual fire stations are shown in light purple, and every building is colored based on its fire risk.

If only it was this easy to see data in real life!

There are two additional features that really put this game head and shoulders above the SimCity franchise.

The first is the ability to make your own maps through a map editor. The editor is extremely detailed, especially with regard to mapping water, which really acts like a fluid. This is important, since hydro power in the game depends on the strength and volume of water.

The other feature is that the game is set up for modding and asset creation. I haven't attempted to do any of this myself, but I have downloaded several mods and assets (buildings, parks, interchanges, and the like). But in the two weeks since the game's release, there are already thousands of user-created mods and assets available for download.

Many of us were disappointed at the rollout of SimCity 5, not only because it was plagued with problems, but because the actual gameplay seemed like a setback from SimCity 4.

Cities: Skylines, on the other hand, is a worthy heir to the title. If you were disappointed in SimCity 5, you will probably find Skylines very satisfying.

New transit in Alexandria could be great, but not if riders can't walk to stations

Alexandria is planning a new bus rapid transit corridor that could be great for development. But the fenced-off apartment complexes and pedestrian-hostile roads surrounding it could discourage people from taking the bus.


Alexandria's West End today. Photo from Google Street View.

The West End Transitway is a bus rapid transit system that will run along Van Dorn and Beauregard streets, connecting the Van Dorn Metro station to both the Shirlington Transit Center and the Pentagon. The transitway will have dedicated lanes for buses, meaning it will bring effective transit to an area that needs development.

But the West End neighborhood south of Landmark, whose rough boundaries are Edsall, Pickett, Duke and I-395, contains numerous apartment complexes with fences that block pedestrian connections. Meanwhile, wide, fast roads make walking inconvenient and dangerous. Neither of these things will encourage anyone to use the bus.


The proposed West End Transitway. Map from the City of Alexandria.

For example, the Edsall Bluff complex on Edsall Road is only about 400 feet from Watergate at Landmark. But to get from one to the other, a resident would have to walk nearly a mile because they're both fenced in and there aren't any paths that connect them.

When it comes to transit, walkability is the key to success. The parts of Alexandria that have really high transit use, like Old Town, not only have density but a street grid with narrow, slow streets that makes it easy and safe to walk to Metro and bus routes. Likewise, the West End Transitway needs to be accessible on foot and by bike. If it's not, it's going to be hard to call the project a success.

Wide, fast roads make walking unsafe

Alexandria's plan for the Beauregard Street corridor, which is in the West End, proposes a new grid with streets that slow vehicle traffic and are easy for pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate. But the latest plans for the West End Transitway are full of suburban design, namely wide travel lanes that are between 12 and 14 feet wide, and a lack of on-street bikeways.

Missing are the narrow lanes that are now universally recommended in modern smart growth handbooks. In Walkable City, author Jeff Speck lauds the ten to 11 foot lanes that have become the new norm, but he says nine-foot lanes would be even better. Not only are these streets safer for walking and biking, but they're also safer for driving.

Also missing are protected bike lanes. While the draft West End Transitway plan has a "sidepath" for biking and walking, modern best practices would give it a protected bikeway and a sidewalk.

A protected bikeway would keep bikes off the sidewalk, which is safer for pedestrians. It'd also carry the bike lane through each intersection with street design (paint), signals, and signage. With a sidepath, the only safe way to bicycle through an intersection is to slow to walking speed. But people do not have the discipline to do that at every intersection, so sidewalk (and sidepath) riding is dangerous. Most cycling organizations strongly discourage it.

In another example of misplaced suburban design, plans for the intersection at Van Dorn and Pickett feature slip lanes that allow for fast right-hand turns. Transit Commission member Scott Anderson said they've now been redesigned for lower speeds, but they're still dangerous.

"A transitway should be designed to move people safely, not move cars fast," said West End Policy Advisory Group member Jake Jakubek.

Where safe paths don't exist, people make them up

I recently spent an afternoon visiting West End apartments, looking for "desire paths" between them. Desire paths are unofficial routes created by people walking where no path was provided. Often, they stand out as dirt paths in satellite photos.

While I found trampled earth along many of the perimeter fences, I found only one such path open and only one clear case of a fence that had been patched to close a desire path. It may be telling that the only open path I found passed through a fence-gap in a wooded area, hidden from those tasked with fence repair.

Google Maps includes numerous desire paths in walking and biking directions. One such path is shown between the aforementioned Edsall Bluff and Watergate at Landmark. In reality, however, there is only a fence and a stand of thick bamboo. That the path is on a map suggests that it once existed.

All desire paths, both existing and closed off, show that people like to walk and that they strongly prefer the shortest route to their destination, even if they have to climb through a gap in a fence to get there.

The West End Transitway could make it easier to get around Alexandria without a car, as well as encourage much-needed investment in the area. However, it's important to make sure that people can easily and safely get to the transitway on foot or bike. Without that, the benefits of new transit may not materialize.

We visited 18 schools in 90 days to play DC's annual preschool lottery. Here is what we learned.

Parents all over DC are awaiting the results of the city's annual lottery to get into public schools and public charter schools, which are expected to hit inboxes Friday. The anxiety level is high.


Lottery image from Shutterstock.

My husband and I entered the lottery to get a spot in a preschool program for our three-year-old child. Not all 3- or 4-year-olds are guaranteed a spot in a school, even in the school they are zoned to attend. Only in kindergarten is there a secured spot for students in the District (and for preschoolers in five low-income areas as a pilot program).

That means applying to multiple schools in hopes of getting into one. For months or years, parents like us have pored over school data, researched curricula, visited school buildings to meet with principals, teachers and parents, and asked questions of other parents on listservs, on the playground and at community meetings throughout the city.

We all want to get our children into the "best" school that is the "right fit." And it all comes down to putting together a list of 12 schools in ranked order in the hopes that our lottery number and/or other preferences will get our children into a school we actually want to send them to.

Here is some of what we learned about the process and about some of the schools in DC.

Lotteries are enormously competitive. At both charters and neighborhood schools, alike, we often heard the refrain of "Our school is more difficult to get into than (insert the name of the Ivy League school du jour)." Some of these elementary schools receive hundreds if not thousands of applications, with just a few spots to fill. (We tried our best not to even entertain the idea of going to places like Brent Elementary, where it seems a family must win the actual lottery to afford a house that is in bounds for the school.)

The largest number of seats for incoming 3-year-olds that we saw was in the low 60s. Most were in the 20s and low 30s, and that is before the schools take into account the sibling and other preferences. The lottery gives preferences to the siblings of students already at the school and, in some schools, children of the school's staff.

After hearing about the difficult odds, parents in the open house sessions murmured and whispered among themselves. And at the end of the sessions, these same administrators would smile and say, "We invite you to apply for our school and to put us in the No. 1 spot." While inviting to hear, it also made us wonder whether some schools are trying to goose the numbers of applications, so they can continue to tout their desirability to future parents.

There are some amazing schools in DC. Really amazing. Yes, it's an urban district with lots of unevenness and inequality—some painfully obvious—but there are many schools that are thriving and excelling. For example, one of the first schools we walked into was Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, and I was very impressed with what we witnessed. From the outdoor garden to the music class, it felt like a warm, friendly building where children would grow and be challenged.

The inequities of the system are real. Why can't all of DC's kids go to a school like Peabody? Some schools have old buildings, or school leadership that doesn't demand and provide excellence, or general poverty, or parents who aren't or can't be more involved in their children's education, or a whole host of other issues all combined. But it still hurts to know that not every child can go to the excellent schools that the District has to offer.

PTAs are providing enormous amounts of extra funding and other types of aid to schools throughout the District. Many of the schools we visited have signature fundraisers that they put on every year in the hopes of buying a new kiln, supporting a gardening program, updating the school library, etc., etc. This is both invigorating and frustrating.

It's wonderful to see parents come together to support their children's education, and I expect one day that we will be heavily involved with our son's school's PTA. But what about parents who don't have extra money or extra time to give? What happens to schools without those extra resources? How can we as a city support ALL schools with resources for the arts as well as for writing, reading, math, social studies and science?

Demand for the city's language immersion schools is high and only growing, as many parents want to see their children gain valuable skills and knowledge about other cultures in this globalizing world. We are keenly interested in these schools and this model of teaching and ended up putting many of these schools near the top of our list, even though the chances of getting in are so thin. District leaders—and others throughout the country—should pay close attention to this demand and find ways to meet it.

School data—or the lack thereof—can make you start to twitch. My husband, a statistician, eagerly dove into the data that he could find about the results of past lotteries to help us figure out where we'd have the best chance of getting in. (We have no sibling or other preferences for 11 of the schools we chose, and we put our zoned school, which is still struggling to find its way, last on the list.)

But even with all his expertise, we still couldn't get a great grasp on the numbers because many of the charters don't supply that information. And that's just the information about the lottery. We had to ask basic questions at every school—publics and charters alike—about things like whether there is a full-time school nurse, whether there is a separate library in the building with a dedicated librarian, etc.

For the most part, all of the public schools had these things, but many of the charters did not (especially the newer ones). Regardless, we shouldn't have had to ask for this information. All of this should available publicly in a place where everyone can peruse and compare easily and quickly. No one should have to go into a school building to figure out these basic things.

There is data in DCPS's school profile pages, on the Public Charter School Board's website, and on LearnDC, but not everything we wanted to know.

The charters we visited are offering a solid education and a caring environment to students. It's unfortunate that the public schools don't have the flexibility to do some of the things the charters can, but there are great schools of both types. However, I firmly believe that if the charters receive public money they must be just as accountable and transparent to the residents of the District and their children as the public schools.

It was dispiriting to hear one charter administrator speak with some level of hubris as if her school answered to no one, least of all the parents of the children in her school. (That only happened at one place we visited, thankfully.) We as parents and citizens in the District should demand more transparency from the city and Congress about the charter schools whose budgets come, at least in part, from our tax dollars.

The whole process is heavily weighted in favor of wealthier residents. My husband and I both took off time from work—which we later made up in various forms of working late or on weekends—to attend the open houses. We are grateful that our jobs allowed us the flexibility to do so. Only some schools offered visits after working hours. For anyone who works a job on a shift or with little flexibility, visiting these schools would not have been an option. The schools need to do a better job of finding other ways to open their doors to potential parents.

An organization called DC School Reform Now has been making videos, or "virtual school tours," to address this problem. There aren't a lot of videos yet, though, and it's not going to close the gap entirely.

DC doesn't really offer "school choice" today. Yes, we did make choices about which schools to put on our list. Yes, with the charters and publics taken together, the city offers a variety of different models and philosophies. (We really liked the Montessori schools, for example, but they aren't for everyone.) And yes, there are some truly excellent schools in the District.

But ultimately, with so many people competing for few spots, our ability to get into those schools is mostly due to chance, not choice. Rather than being a process of choosing what's right for one's child, the current lottery is mostly about hoping that child can get into any good school at all.

An expanded version of this article originally appeared on Medium.

Breakfast links: This land is my land


Photo by Richard Ricciardi on Flickr.
Master of my eminent domain: Mayor Bowser may decide to use eminent domain to take the land for the DC United stadium. Negotiations with Akridge, who owns the future stadium land, are progressing slowly, which may force the city to move before the September deadline. (City Paper)

Unpave paradise: Capitol Hill residents want to turn parking lots around RFK Sadium into a giant park. But, suporter Councilmember Charles Allen says that it will take time since the District needs approval from the National Park Service before moving forward with any additional plans. (Hill Now)

Where and how much?: The Arlington County Board needs to figure out what income levels and where to target their affordable housing plan. The county's widening income gap is expected to make affordable housing harder to find. (InsideNOVA)

We're different: Uber and Lyft are advocating for a new regulatory classification from the Maryland Public Service Commission. The Commission is working to place strict regulations on the companies, which could increase prices. (WBJ)

Abandonment issues: Gear Prudence advises that if a bike is left for 7 days consider it abandoned. He also addresses close calls and says to think about what you could do differently the next time you ride. (City Paper)

Crumbling sidewalks: Arlington is trying to figure out why a handful of new sidewalks are disintegrating. Engineers think that water was present in the construction, which is problematic. Rapidly-changing temperatures are also playing a role. (ArlNow)

Saving energy: The Washington region has the most energy efficient buildings of any metropolitan area in the country. The region has 480 Energy Star-certified buildings, while second-place Los Angeles has 475. (City Paper)

Completing our streets: A new study from Smart Growth America found that complete streets promote walking and biking, prevent collisions, and spur private investment. Implementing these projects doesn't break the bank either. (Streetsblog)

Worst parking job ever: Eleanor Holmes Norton executed the "worst parking job ever" to park totally diagonally between two cars, hitting them, and then walked away. A bystander captured it all on video. (Roll Call)

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