WASHINGTON -- The people lining the sidewalk in the tranquil neighborhood weren't young fans camping out for tickets to the new "Star Wars" movie. They were parents trying to get their children into one of 30 precious pre-kindergarten spots in the capital's only bilingual elementary school.
Before the sign-up period ended last month, dozens of moms and dads lined up in front of the J.F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, many for as long as five days.
While President Bush and other leaders are quick to point out stagnant achievement levels in public schools, across the nation exceptional schools are quietly attracting dedicated parents. Families are willing to endure waiting lists, crosstown drives, weekend classes and other special requirements for a chance at more rigorous academics, unusual programs or friendlier faces.
Oyster boasts classrooms featuring two teachers -- one who predominantly speaks English, the other Spanish. The demanding language immersion program attracts both English- and Spanish-speaking children, all of whom end up bilingual after a few years.
Neighborhood children are guaranteed a spot, but those who live elsewhere in the city are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. Virtually all families must arrange their own transportation.
For Richard Eisendorf, that means up to a half-hour drive to drop off his son Isaiah. Eisendorf and his wife camped out last month, hoping to secure a spot for Isaiah's little sister as well.
School officials eventually arrived and told the parents they would be recognized as the first in line for spots, but not before many had spent five days working out a system in which they could come and go as they wished, but had to be present -- or arrange for a stand-in -- every three hours. Everyone had to show up for the all-important 9 p.m. roll call or they'd lose their spot.
Like many parents, the Eisendorfs consider Oyster a viable option to local private schools, but without the $12,000 price tag.
"If it takes one week or one night, it's worth it," Eisendorf said.
District of Columbia school officials say they're looking into ways to duplicate the program.
In gritty Dorchester, Mass., the waiting list for one of 20 kindergarten spots at O'Hearn Elementary School routinely exceeds 100. Principal Bill Henderson cited O'Hearn's intensive home reading program, which asks families to sign contracts acknowledging that they read with their children four nights a week. Parent volunteers visit the homes of children who don't regularly participate, gently persuading families to join up with gifts of books and pizza parties.
The decade-old program has helped raise O'Hearn's reading scores considerably, taking it from the bottom of Boston's 78 elementary schools to the top.
Boston's policy of "controlled choice" gives parents one month early each year to pick a school in their area -- a key to parent satisfaction, said Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform.
"Parents care more in cases where they have a choice," she said. "When you look at a school that is very good, one of the things you see is direct democracy. You see people who have voted with their feet."
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