D.C. School Again Keeps Parents Waiting in Cold

Two dozen parents stood in line outside the District’s only public bilingual elementary school yesterday afternoon — six days before the school was to begin accepting applications to enroll children who live outside the neighborhood. Several of the parents wore ski hats and parkas, and some had rented minivans so they would have a place to sleep.

The campout at J.F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary has become an annual ritual, each year sparking complaints from parents and activists who say that the first-come, first-served system is unfair to those who cannot wait in line because of jobs and family obligations.

Last year, after dozens of parents waited outside the school for three days in bitterly cold weather, school board members and Superintendent Paul L. Vance promised to change the enrollment process. But a proposal to switch to a lottery system was not forwarded to the board because it had been crafted without input from parents citywide, administrators said.

This year’s line started forming even earlier than last year’s. The first of the 25 parents waiting outside the school at 1 p.m. yesterday said she had been there since Saturday.

Oyster, which offers a Spanish-English program and is in a new building in Woodley Park, enrolls 365 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. Administrators are unsure how many slots will be available for students who live outside the neighborhood, but generally there is little extra space.

Parents who were not in line and wanted to enroll their children were furious that the line had formed already.

“I think it’s lunacy,” said Tad DiBiase, who wanted to enroll his 4 1/2-year-old daughter. He was planning to camp out beginning this Friday but now has concluded that he is too late to secure a spot. “This really shows they don’t have the follow-through necessary to run a school system like this,” he said.

Tracy Lassman said she was unable to take time away from caring for her children and working part time as a lawyer. “It is completely unreasonable and inexcusable,” she said. “The superintendent and the school board had one year to fix this. I don’t think it’s rocket science.”

A committee of school administrators and parents had recommended to Vance that out-of-boundary applications at schools citywide be handled through a lottery system, said school system Chief of Staff Steven G. Seleznow. But parents in other parts of the city objected to a lottery and said they had not been given a chance to comment on the proposal, Seleznow said. Most other schools do not have lines that are as long or that form as early as the one at Oyster.

“The superintendent has said very clearly indeed he wants to fix this,” Seleznow said. But he added, “The superintendent . . . wasn’t going to implement a policy that many citizens in the city felt they should have contributed to.”

Seleznow said administrators also were concerned that there had not been time for lawyers to review the proposal.

The school system also has been looking into adding bilingual programs but the planning process takes time, Seleznow said, as does finding funding.

School officials said they are now deciding whether to make accommodations so that Oyster applicants will not have to keep waiting outside the school until Monday.

Those in line yesterday agreed to a system in which everyone needed to be present for a 9 p.m. roll call, and a designated “buddy” could represent two families at other times.

Eve Northrup was the parent who arrived Saturday. When others saw the line forming, they joined in.

“I was driven by fear,” said Northrup, who wants to enroll her 3-year-old, Zavier. “I was really afraid that if I didn’t get out early we would miss out.”

Percy Ocan a, who moved to Washington eight months ago from Peru and wanted to enroll his 4-year-old daughter, Antonella, said that he and his wife would struggle to take turns in line between shifts working as cooks. He said they would also try to enlist friends to hold their spot.

“It appears to me unjust — poor planning on the part of the city and educational system,” Ocan a said. “Why haven’t they created other bilingual schools?”

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