DCSRN has partnered with DC Scholars Stanton Elementary School since the Fall of 2011 to support 5th grade families during their transition to middle school. Since that first campaign, the partnership between DCSRN and Stanton has grown, from helping families through the common lottery application and enrollment processes to hosting the annual Virtual School Tour Movie Night. Throughout the years, Stanton staff have been vital in strengthening this partnership. Christie Atlee, Manager of Community and Family Engagement, has been a presence at Stanton since 2013. Here, DCSRN gathers her thoughts on the common lottery, how the process could be even better, and why Stanton’s relationship with DCSRN is critical to 5th grade families.
What is your education background? Is there anything from your experience that you felt was essential to your success?
Christie Atlee: I grew up in McLean, Virginia, which is a very affluent suburb of Washington, DC that has some of the best public schools in the country. I went to public school for elementary and middle school, but I had a difficult time in middle school because I was diagnosed with ADD. I couldn’t stay on track because the learning style was mostly lecture based. I struggled. I additionally wasn’t getting the services from the school that I needed to support my ADD. At that point my mom pulled me out of public school and sent me to a small private school. I was incredibly fortunate that my family could afford a private school, where all the learning was project based and centered around an essential question and engaged me more. At that point, I still didn’t think of myself as “college-bound.” It wasn’t until my junior year when my community service teacher pushed me to become invested in social justice work. She is who really made me decide to go to college and become a social worker. I was amazed.
Sometimes, as educators, we feel that because our backgrounds are different from our students that we struggle to connect with them.
CA: If you have privilege, you should definitely use it to empower others. Because of my mother, I know what a strong advocate looks like. And if I’m doing something with my life and I’m not using the immense privilege that I have to make the world a better place, what is my purpose?
What are priorities for Stanton families transitioning to middle school?
CA: Parents really want a school that’s the best fit for their kid. I think I was kind of surprised by that when I first came here. From what I’d gathered in education articles and movies like Waiting for Superman, I thought parents only wanted schools that got really high-test scores and are at the top of lists. But our families actually talk a lot about what environment their kid is going to thrive in. There are a lot of parents coming to me asking, “My kid is really invested in basketball, can we find a school with a really good basketball team?” Or, “my kid is kind of shy, wouldn’t really do well in a big school. Can we find them a smaller school?”
Right now, in terms of access to a quality education or equity in education, what do you think are the biggest gaps for families in DC right now?
CA: Well I would say the biggest gap is probably the lack of quality schools east of the river. I think a lack of reliable transportation comes into that too. Our families get nervous about sending their kids west of the river because it feels so far away. It can mean an hour and a half of commuting with two buses each way, and our parents are especially scared if their kids are coming home when its dark. I think another barrier is that there are not enough spots in quality schools, and every year there are less and less spots at schools. I think a lot of our parents get really discouraged by that, and they get really confused when they don’t get matched with any schools.
What questions do parents ask most about the application process?
CA: Our families generally just want to know how the whole thing works. They want to know when they are going to find out, they want to know if their kid is guaranteed a spot. I don’t know if our families initially understand how the process really works, so guidance from an advocate is invaluable.
So thinking about that, how do you think this process could be made easier, especially for our families in underserved areas?
CA: Not make it all online for starters, especially since many families do not have consistent internet access. I think EdFEST is a good step, but I think there need to be more community based events. If there was an application day at the Anacostia library, or even if they decided to use a gym at a school, that would make a huge difference.
"My number one piece of advice is to pick the school that’s the best fit for your child, not just because its right next to your house."
What advice would you give to families doing this for the very first time?
CA: My number one piece of advice is to pick the school that’s the best fit for your child, not just because its right next to your house. Ultimately, that can make or break their success. Also, manage your expectations, especially if there is a school you’re dead-set on.
Why is Stanton’s partnership with DCSRN beneficial? Why keep us around?
CA: For so many reasons! First of all, it’s just extremely helpful to have extra people to call families and really sit down with families and do the work with them. We just do not have the capacity to work with 60 parents. We just do not have the capacity to keep making those phone calls, working on applications, and tracking who is doing what. It’s also helpful to have that knowledge base. Everyone at DCSRN really knows what they’re doing. Everyone knows the application process, everyone knows the schools. We have full trust in them to be able to talk to our families about schools. I think DCSRN is on the same page with us in terms of our vision for what we want for our kids’ education. We want our students to continue to go to quality schools. We want our kids to continue an upward trajectory with us and after us. We know there are certain places they will go that will not continue their trajectory. It’s nice to have a partner that continues that with us. The virtual tours are also so impactful for families. They like that opportunity because that really helps with thinking about transportation. All the resources are just really helpful.
What’s your favorite part of this entire process?
CA: When families find out they get into the school they were really excited about. Always, always, always when that exciting moment comes! Also, when a family just thanks us. We have families who are just really grateful to have the support, and it also just feels really nice to be providing something that our families really need.