Credit: (Illustrations by Mark Todd)

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Kristina and Matthew Oaks are facing a common problem for District families. They live on Capitol Hill and have a 4-year-old daughter, Merete. Merete is currently enrolled in pre-Kindergarten at AppleTree Early Learning, a public charter school in Southwest that doesn’t have a first grade.

The Oakses’ address puts Merete on a collision course with Maury Elementary School, where in 2006, 48 percent of the student body tested as “proficient” in reading and only 21 percent tested as proficient in math. The Oakses, to their chagrin, are outside the boundary for the neighborhood’s well-regarded public school—the Capitol Hill Cluster School—which has somewhat better scores and a much better reputation.

Last year, the couple entered their daughter in the lottery for the Capitol Hill Cluster School and wound up on the waiting list. They committed to AppleTree instead.

Kristina Oaks says she and her husband are “a little bit apprehensive” about Maury. They are applying to various charter schools throughout the city in hopes of landing Merete someplace better. They have a 7-month-old, Finnegan, so they’re bracing for another round of school shopping. They’re most concerned about high school. “It’s a hard decision,” Kristina Oaks says. “We’ve thought about the school districts and the long-term options, and we’re not impressed with what we see.”

For years and years, those “long-term options” have generally consisted of a miserable public education or a pricey private one. But D.C. today is also a city of charter schools, which are funded with the same per-pupil allotment as traditional public schools but operate independently of the D.C. public school system. Right now there are 55 charters operating in the District.

If none of those 55 charters appeals to you, hey, just start your own. It sounds like a big hassle, and it is. But a growing number of parents—who share a lot in common with the Oakses—have gone DIY on Junior’s school. Perhaps they just can’t stomach daily gridlock on I-270 or I-66. Perhaps they just love the District that much. Whatever the case, enough smarty-pants parents have started side careers as educators to yield a rich crop of cautionary tales. Herewith, a few things to consider before you become your kid’s first principal.

Be ready to quit your job

In early 1999, administrative problems led to an exodus of staff and teachers from Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in Mount Pleasant. PTA president Anne Herr, whose daughter was in kindergarten at Hearst, started looking for a way to turn things around at the school. She asked PTA member Andrea Carlson Barrett to investigate charters.

“We figured out that as a charter school, the school itself controls the programs, the staff, and the budget,” says Barrett, who also discovered it’s possible to convert a school from public to charter with approval from two-thirds of the parent population. “We all went, ‘Huh, that sounds pretty good.’ ”

So the group moved ahead with an application to convert Hearst. But in August 1999, DCPS assigned a new principal to the school, giving the impression it was on the verge of a comeback. Not wanting to mess up Hearst if things might be improving, the parents ultimately revised their application to create a whole new school—the Capital City Public Charter School.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board approved Capital City’s application. But the work wasn’t over: Herr had to bring together a network of parents who could do fundraising, incorporating, lawyering, and administering. Barrett wrote grant applications. Herr’s husband, Karl Jentoft, personally backed all the startup loans. Herr was lucky to have a half-time schedule at her job assisting with Russian relations at the State Department, because working on setting up the school, she says, required all the free time she had. “It was like a job,” she says.

Former Hearst elementary teacher Karen Dresden, who had been working on a master’s degree in education at Harvard, committed to becoming Capital City’s principal and began convincing potential teachers not to take other jobs.

“It got more and more scary,” Herr says. “The stakes got higher as time went on.”

Starting a school didn’t even guarantee a spot in the first grade for Herr’s daughter, Kate. (The D.C. charter school law, at that time, didn’t allow any parent to sidestep the random lottery for admission.) Herr says she and other parents didn’t know whether to be more concerned that their own kids get in or that the school would draw enough students.

But things worked out fine. In fall 2000, Capital City opened on time in an office space above the CVS at 14th and Irving Streets NW. Kate got in. The school has since moved into a massive state-of-the-art facility nearby, in the former Wilson Center, and has a waiting list of more than 600.

For Herr, those high stakes ultimately reached career-height: In 2004 she said goodbye to the State Department, where she had worked for 15 years, and became Capital City’s executive director.

Thank Phil Mendelson

Several years ago, Capitol Hill resident Danielle Ewen began researching the best options for her 2-year-old son, Max. She began attending school-information nights with a large group of other parents.

Things looked bleak for little Max and his peers. “Brent didn’t have a library,” Ewen recalls of her in-boundary school. “Tyler had facilities issues,” she says of another neighborhood elementary. The private Capitol Hill Day School was very expensive. One option was for parents to become deeply involved in revitalizing a single school. But with the parents spread out across multiple school boundaries, the group decided it wouldn’t be fair to pour hours of work into a school that only a few kids had a guarantee of getting into. With a charter, everybody had the same chance of admission.

“People thought, ‘Let’s do a charter,’ ” Ewen says. “ ‘We can dream big.’ ”

At first they tried to get Capital City to open a second campus on the Hill, but Anne Herr & Co. deferred. The Capitol Hill parents would have to start their own. Ewen, who directs the Child Care and Early Education team at the Center for Law and Social Policy, donated hours and hours of her free time to learn about school administration.

“I did a bunch of research on nonprofit management and read some books,” she says. She wrote the school-governance section of the application, which the charter board approved in 2003. Two Rivers Public Charter School was born.

Even though the school didn’t have a building, the group advertised well and received more applications than spots available. Names went into the lottery, and some unlucky folks wound up on the waiting list. Ewen’s son Max was the unluckiest of them all: “There was a waiting list of 14 kids, and we were number 14,” Ewen says.

“It broke [the principal’s] heart when we were the last name. I literally thought she was going to die. They didn’t want to tell me.”

Ewen would find out whether her son could attend by early July 2004—after the deadline for a commitment to Capitol Hill Day School, where Max had been accepted. So Max wound up at CHDS, where full tuition for a year of kindergarten is $19,600.

“I’m fairly risk-averse, and I couldn’t wait to see if we were going to come off the list,” Ewen says. Aversion to risk: a no-no in the rough-and-tumble, start-your-own-school world of urban living. Ewen is happy with how things have worked out for Max.

Fortunately for future charter-founding parents, Ewen’s experience may never be repeated. In 2006, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson successfully amended legislation to create a “Founders Preference” for admissions to public charter schools. Mendelson’s provision allows charters to reserve up to 10 percent of the student body, not to exceed 20 spots, for the children of founders.

“There’s an issue of fairness when a group of parents work very hard to start a charter school and then it’s a matter of luck whether their kid gets into the school,” Mendelson says. The council action provides no consolation to Ewen, though; the bill won’t help founders whose kids have already missed out.

Former education committee chair Kathy Patterson opposed the amendment on principle: “The whole notion of a public school is that it’s open to everybody,” she says.

Be nice

Carmen Rioux-Bailey lives in Adams Morgan. H.D. Cooke Elementary is her in-boundary school, and it’s not doing well—aside from low test scores, students have been bused to another campus for the past year because the school has been closed for renovations. In a Feb. 1 Washington Examiner story, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is quoted saying that “not a hammer has been lifted” to renovate the old building.

In 2005, through the D.C. Urban Moms Listserv, Rioux-Bailey heard about a group of Dupont Circle parents starting a charter that would offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum and a Chinese language-immersion program.

“I heard about this and thought, Oh my god, right up my alley,” says Rioux-Bailey, whose adopted daughter, Vivienne, was born in China. Rioux-Bailey joined the Dupont Circle International Academy Listserv.

But one day she tried to sign on and couldn’t. She was quickly allowed back, and soon saw a message from parent Gloria Borland explaining that the list had been invaded by covert agents from the nearby public school: “A Ross elementary school supporter sneaked in and this person is forwarding our e-mail discussions over to Ross supporters. Basically we have a SPY!”

Rioux-Bailey promptly announced that she didn’t want anything more to do with the Dupont Circle International Academy.

“It seems inconceivable that a group so mired in distrust, finger-pointing, and hostile competition with its neighbors could ever successfully educate children about international respect and global collaboration,” she wrote.

Rioux-Bailey is a faculty member at the George Mason University Graduate School of Education, where she helps prospective teachers prepare for certification or a master’s in special education. She felt her expertise in education would’ve helped the group. “We were your dream people,” she says.

Borland pooh-poohs the loss. “We were smart enough to bring in professional educators,” she says, including Elizabeth McCabe, then a doctoral candidate and research assistant in Educational Administration and Policy at George Washington University.

But the Dupont group didn’t have what it takes, according to the charter board. In a June 2005 letter, the board said that the Dupont Circle Academy’s application suffered from a “lack of a clear admissions process that is in keeping with the charter school law” and “limited evidence of planning to serve ELL [English language-learning] and special needs students.”

Serving special-needs students—precisely Rioux-Bailey’s field of expertise.

“The application was written in such a way that it gave the impression of being elitist,” says Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) director Robert Cane, whom the parents had occasionally consulted.

The “elitist” accusation is probably the one Dupont parents like Borland resent most. “They wanted us to dumb down the curriculum,” Borland says. “Why do a remedial school? Our kids can perform at grade level…Why are parents criticized for being elitist when we complain about that?”

Borland and a few others, fed up with public schools altogether, are moving forward with plans to open a private co-op for their kids in the fall. Borland has a sour perspective on the charter application process: “It ruins your life,” she says.

Rioux-Bailey is looking at charters like Capital City and out-of-boundary public schools like Dupont Circle’s Ross Elementary for her daughter.

Location, location, location

A neighborhood with lots of children would be a good place for a school, you might think. But Capitol Hill and Cleveland Park—two of the few D.C. neighborhoods with rising birth rates, according to a study released by the Urban Institute in October—turn out to be tricky places to put a school. First, the real estate—not cheap at all. And the residents may be popping out babies, but they’ve also got other agendas.

Your obstacles:

Entrenched Neighbors One of Capital City’s four failed “letters of intent” to lease a property was for the Rosedale estate in Cleveland Park. Capital City founding parent Karl Jentoft says the real estate agent brokering the deal didn’t realize the property’s previous owner had a covenant with neighbors giving them the ability to match bids with potential developers. Neighbors did not have to exercise the option against Capital City; the Capital City folks, not wanting to risk delays going through rigmarole with neighbors, gave up on the deal. But two years later, the community did flex its muscle to prevent the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital from buying the property. Residents matched a $12 million bid and bought it themselves to add a few units of single-family housing while keeping most of it green.

Gym Rats In the Capitol Hill area, look no further than the old red-brick Giddings School on G Street SE for an idea of what Hill residents want from a stately DCPS building: a fabulous health club with an art gallery in it. The District sold the building in 1998 for $1.8 million and it became Results, the Gym in 2001. Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose supported the deal.

Real Estate Mayhem Only 12 days before classes were supposed to begin at Two Rivers Public Charter School in fall 2004, several parents showed up at the office of the DCPS general counsel. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday, and the parents had arrived to sign a “co-location” agreement for a wing of the Eliot Junior High building on Constitution Avenue NE. The lease wasn’t ready.

“It was heart-wrenching,” recalls then-principal of Two Rivers, Jessica Wodatch. They decided not to leave until they had it, and after 10 p.m. their patience paid off. If they hadn’t secured the lease, it would have been the 16th failed property deal since the charter board approved Two Rivers’ application in 2003. The group of parents had even looked into conducting classes in trailers.

“The problem citywide is that there’s too little real estate available at an affordable price,” says Two Rivers founding parent and current Chief Financial Officer Sarah Richardson. “We were desperate.”

Wodatch describes the days before classes began as an “extreme school makeover”—the wing of Eliot they were renting needed paint, plumbing, and electricity before it could accommodate 220 small children. Fortunately, several of the parents involved were architects; one managed to get a contractor immediately.

This semester, Two Rivers moved into a bigger, brand-new facility on Florida Avenue NE, east of the still up-and-coming H Street corridor—just far enough away from the white-hot real estate and uppity neighborhood organizations of Capitol Hill.

Control other parents

Wodatch, now executive director of Two Rivers, says that one initial difficulty in the school’s early days was slightly-too-eager parents. Two Rivers administrators had “to help people understand we’re a parent-founded school, not a parent-run school,” Wodatch says. In the school’s first year, Wodatch recalls being approached by a parent with a very generous offer.

“I’ll pay for a gifted-and-talented teacher,” Wodatch recalls the parent telling her.

Two Rivers does encourage parental involvement—parents volunteer in classrooms almost every day—but bringing in a specialist to nurture an elite cadre of little geniuses apart from the general student population doesn’t fit with the Two Rivers philosophy. The school uses the Expeditionary Learning educational model, in which students of all abilities learn together. Wodatch confesses that “differentiation”—making sure the below-grade-level kids and above-grade-level kids are equally engaged—is a major challenge. But the school’s emphasis on community is more important: “You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you can’t get along with other human beings, you’re very limited in what you can accomplish,” she says.

The child of the G&T-obsessed parent has since left the school. Two other families also left—“an extremely minimal number,” says Wodatch, who reports that nobody else has jumped ship since the first year.

If you find yourself on the rebuffed-parent end of this equation, or you simply want more for your child than your child’s school can provide, there is always the following solution:

Heather Harrison, one of the would-be founders of the Dupont Circle International Academy, has enrolled her 4-year-old daughter, Sabina, at the D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School in Columbia Heights. Not convinced the average teacher can accommodate the needs of each student in the average classroom, Harrison does nightly tutoring to make sure her daughter gets the right kind of instruction.

“A good portion of her education comes from me,” says Harrison, who also reports speaking to teachers at the school on a weekly basis. She says the school is very welcoming of her involvement. She’s happy enough for now but is still considering moving.

“For the next 14 years, if I keep her in DCPS, I’m going to have to be very involved in her education,” she says.

Get a lawyer

These days, public education is the most prominent political issue in the District—which means it’s a racial minefield. Charter schools were imposed on the District by a Newt Gingrich­–led Congress in 1996, and 11 years later the Republican legacy of the school-choice movement remains. A charter with demographics out of sync with the rest of the city poses an ideal target for the anti-charter, pro-public-school crowd.

That’s where Two Rivers comes in. The school’s founders discovered early on that they posed a threat to a similar group of urban pioneers with slightly deeper roots: parents at Capitol Hill Cluster School. The Cluster School was founded in 1986, the product of a prolonged effort by parents to merge three Hill schools under a single administration. It now has a long waiting list of out-of-boundary Hill families. Some Cluster parents see charters as an affront to the cluster.

“If people are encouraged to pack up and start their own schools all over town, it’s going to impact the neighborhood school,” says Gina Arlotto, a Hill parent with three children at the Cluster School. Arlotto, who co-founded the anti-charter Save Our Schools coalition, is one of the city’s most vocal critics of charter schools—she’s been quoted in a dozen news stories on schools in the past 10 months. Save Our Schools was initially started to oppose charter sprawl, but it now spends most of its energy fighting the inevitable mayoral takeover of the school system.

Save Our Schools is the lead plaintiff in a discrimination lawsuit against Two Rivers. The suit alleges that Two Rivers engaged in discriminatory admissions because the student body has a larger proportion of white students than the rest of the public school system. A number of those white students are the offspring of the school’s founders.

According to the complaint, the Two Rivers student body initially was 45 percent white, 40 percent black, 10 percent Latino, and 5 percent Asian, while DCPS as a whole is 84 percent black. Two Rivers parents, the complaint reads, created the school “specifically with the objective of not having a school that was ‘too black.’ ”

Last year a federal judge dismissed most of the claims, but the suit is crawling forward; later this year Save Our Schools will present evidence for its claim that the District’s funding of Two Rivers amounts to discrimination.

The Two Rivers folks won’t talk about the suit on the record. They defer to Robert Cane from FOCUS: “This suit is completely fraudulent,” he says. “These are rabid anti-charter people… they like to blame the charters for all the ills of the school system.”