Start with the District’s enormous range of public school quality and reputation, add the city’s enthusiastic embrace of school choice, and here is what you get: Very few D.C. students attend their assigned public school, particularly outside of a few pockets west of Rock Creek Park and on Capitol Hill.
A map from a story that ran earlier this week about the District’s struggle with middle schools offers a glimpse of that phenomenon, showing the portion of public school students who lived in each school’s attendance area and attended the school last year. Overall, only 24 percent of the students attended their home middle schools.
Across the city, only about a quarter of D.C students attend their assigned school. But that hardly begins to tell the whole story of how students scatter from their home neighborhoods to schools across the city, according to eye-opening data recently released by Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith as part of her effort to overhaul school boundaries.
On average, elementary-age kids living within one D.C. school boundary attend 64 different schools. But the diaspora is much broader in some neighborhoods, especially those served by long-struggling schools.
Of the nearly 550 children who live in the attendance zone for Aiton Elementary School in Ward 7, for example, only 148 — or 23 percent — actually attended Aiton last year.
The remaining 400 children living near Aiton attended 83 different schools, including DCPS and charter schools. And Aiton is hardly unusual: The majority of city schools attract fewer than one-third of the kids living within their boundaries.
Other data recently released by Smith’s office shows that students living east of the Anacostia River, in wards 7 and 8, tend to travel much further than their counterparts in other parts of the city.
The fact that so many students are already traveling in search of better schools makes the city’s effort to overhaul school boundaries and student-assignment policies more complicated. Parents are clearly willing to forgo their assigned schools if they don’t find them suitable.
At Ross Elementary, for example, only one of 47 fifth-graders who have graduated during the past three years have actually matriculated at Ross’s assigned middle school.
Ross parents asked Chancellor Kaya Henderson last year to change their destination middle school to Hardy Middle in Georgetown, arguing that their children would stay in the school system if they could stay together as a cohort.
Henderson denied that request in the fall, saying that such a decision would need to be part of the larger school boundary review. The decision drew protest from parents, who said that without change, children will continue to leave the school system.
“We don’t live in the Soviet Union,” said Jonathan Grossman, a parent leader at Ross Elementary, at a D.C. Council hearing last fall. “You can’t draw a line and magically expect people are going to follow that line and go to school.”