The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost every part of life for DC Public Schools students. The challenges of distance learning have been all-consuming for DCPS, with nearly all classes being conducted virtually since last March. However, a small number of high schools in DC face an additional problem: how to admit their students.
The eight selective public high schools in the District — including School Without Walls, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and Bard Early College High School — do not have residential boundaries in which students are guaranteed a spot, nor do they participate in the lottery system used by other schools to admit out-of-boundary students. And this year, they will have to conduct their entire admissions processes virtually. “This year is different, and requires us all to make changes,” the Walls administration stated in an email.
Walls is known for its standardized admissions test, which draws hundreds of students from across the city, but this year, administering it will not be possible. “SWW has eliminated the admissions test for the 2021 admissions process and will be conducting twice as many interviews for 9th grade this year,” the administration said, admitting to being “a little nervous about scheduling so many interviews.”
In years past, a 3.00 middle-school GPA was enough to qualify eighth-graders to sit the admissions test, and about 1,000 prospective students met the benchmark each year. This year, the Walls website warns that “the school will calculate the GPA for all applicants” and invite only “the top 500 students” to an admissions interview.
Other selective high schools within the District face similar challenges in conducting the process virtually, even though they do not typically host in-person exams. “Prior to now our interviews and essays were always done during an open house that took place at our school,” said Amanda Washington, the admissions coordinator for Bard High School Early College. “This was a requirement before and is now done via Zoom virtually to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The essay is also now on the MySchoolDC application,” a citywide online application process that allows DC students to apply to out-of-boundary traditional schools, charter schools, and selective high schools.
Duke Ellington, which will also have an all-virtual admissions process this year, incorporates auditions in various art forms into its application. “[W]e have partnered with the company Acceptd to host our 121 auditions for hundreds of students applying for SY21-22,” said Savannah Overton Williams, the director of external affairs and community engagement at Ellington, in an email; she further stated that school staff had to undergo “several months of training” to prepare for using the platform.
The SWW administration was optimistic about the new process. “We hope that this modified process allows for a greater number of students who have been successful in their respective middle schools to be considered for a seat at Walls,” they stated.
But these selective high schools certainly faced challenges when making admissions decisions this year. “I don’t think anything will come close to hosting auditions in-person, especially when assessing a student’s artistic abilities,” Overton Williams said.
“The biggest challenge is reaching students and making sure they understand the admissions process,” Washington said. “Last year and the year prior we were able to push into middle schools and do interviews there and meet students face to face […] we’ve had to really communicate with middle school teachers, counselors, families, and use social media in order to get through to families about our school. This is still a challenge as well because we’re a fairly new school in DC.”
“The modified process takes almost triple the amount of work, so having more volunteers has been a requirement this year to ensure we can have all students and faculty supported throughout the process,” Overton Williams added.
Some of the changes schools are forced to make during the pandemic might be helpful in the long term as well. For example, Washington says that the school is considering an online essay option in the future.
Overton Williams highlighted some of the positive aspects of the process. “[T]he modifications have allowed us to change our process for the better,” she said. “The virtual audition process allows us to be more environmentally friendly (less paper printing of applications!), and being able to have our auditions recorded so faculty can go back and review is a major win for our process.” She added that “the scheduling of auditions, family interviews as well as keeping all applications digital will remain in place”, and that using the Acceptd platform was successful.
“This whole year has shown us that we must be flexible and that situations are fluid,” said the Walls administration team. “We look forward to many more conversations about our admissions process and how to ensure our process is fair and equitable to all prospective families.”