D.C. school-boundary overhaul triggers discussion about school quality

The tension between neighborhood schools and school choice was on full display Monday night at the District’s Savoy Elementary, where several dozen parents and community members showed up to weigh in on the city’s latest proposal to overhaul school boundaries and student-assignment policies.

Most of those in attendance live east of the Anacostia River, home to some of the most concentrated poverty and lowest-performing schools in the city. And many of them voiced the same concern: New boundaries alone won’t fix struggling schools, and they could end up making it harder for kids from east of the river to get into better options on the other side of town.

Many said they wanted to see a clear plan for investing in and improving schools before redrawing lines on a map. In other words, they said they don’t just want neighborhood schools that their children have a right to attend. They want good neighborhood schools that will offer their children the same quality of education they could get if they lived in tonier parts of Washington.

“We want to be able to go to our neighborhood schools, but until we feel we can do that, we need a choice,” said D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7). Alexander said she would like to see the boundary overhaul put off until school quality improves enough that parents start volunteering to return to neighborhood schools.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who leads the citizen advisory committee that developed the proposal, anticipated the concerns about uneven school quality, which have come up repeatedly in recent months. She said in her introductory remarks Monday that the proposal is not meant to solve the problem of school quality on its own, but that revised boundaries and student-assignment policies are “an opportunity to support improving schools” by providing greater predictability for families.

The proposal also calls for ensuring parity in academic offerings across the city, although it lacks a specific recommendations for how and when that should be accomplished.

The city’s proposal does provide a pathway for students to get into schools outside their attendance zone. Elementary schools would set aside 10 percent of their seats of out-of-boundary kids, while middle and high schools would each set aside an additional 10 percent of seats for students entering at the sixth and ninth grades.

But most schools currently enroll much higher percentages of out-of-boundary students. One fear is that, if schools west of the river succeed in attracting more neighborhood families, there will be less space for children from other parts of the city.

Parents worry that “they’ll be forced to come back to neighborhood schools that really haven’t improved and in fact have gotten worse,” said Trayon White, the former Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.

The proposal gives priority to at-risk students in lotteries for out-of-boundary admission to about 20 of the city’s most affluent schools. At-risk students include those who are homeless or in foster care, whose families are eligible for cash assistance or food stamps, or who are overage and undercredited in high school.

While it’s a policy meant to promote diversity and offer extra help for the neediest kids, critics say, it raises concerns for families who are not among the city’s poorest, but also can’t afford to live in-boundary for the best schools. “Those of us in the middle are kind of stuck,” said Nkenge Garrett, who is sending her son to a charter school in the fall because she isn’t comfortable with her neighborhood school.

Some of the proposed boundary maps also drew opposition, including the new boundary for Eastern High. It would move west of the Anacostia River, and students east of the river would be reassigned to lower-performing Anacostia High. It’s a move that some parents have read as an effort to shut out poor and African American families in order to make Eastern more attractive to white, affluent families on Capitol Hill.

“The frustration and the anxiety only increases because they have another mechanism to keep our kids out,” said April Goggans, a Ward 8 parent.

Alexander, the Ward 7 council member, said she will push for children from east of the river to continue to have access to Eastern.

Wards 7 and 8 would see more students re-assigned to lower-performing schools than some other wards, according to the city’s impact analysis. That is true whether measuring performance by a school’s proficiency rates on the city’s standardized test (top graph) or by a school’s record of producing student growth on those tests (bottom graph).



More than half of students east of the river now attend charter schools, and some who attended Monday’s meeting said the boundary proposal doesn’t do enough to address that reality. The proposal recommends stronger planning between traditional and charter schools but stops short of making specific recommendations.

“If we’re going to have any real discussion about options at the neighborhood level, there’s got to be real, meaningful … discussion between D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Public Charter School Board,” said longtime Ward 8 civic activist Phil Pannell.

The meeting was the first of three this week to gather community feedback; the other two meetings are Tuesday evening at Dunbar High and Thursday evening at Takoma Education Campus. Both begin at 6 p.m. The advisory committee plans to revise its proposal before submitting a final recommendation to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in August, and Gray plans to announce new boundaries in September.

It’s not clear how much of Gray’s plan will stick because implementation will be up to whoever succeed him in November. All three mayoral candidates have called the latest iteration an improvement over the first round of boundary proposals, which were released in April and floated the idea of replacing neighborhood schools with lottery admissions. But the candidates have yet to say what pieces of the boundary overhaul they would and wouldn’t adopt.

D.C. Council member David Grosso has offered the most specific reaction so far, saying in a statement on Monday that he supports the basic direction of the proposal — a core system of neighborhood schools with pathways for choice — but was disappointed in the lack of recommendations for stronger planning with charter schools.

Grosso also pushed back against the notion that the boundary overhaul can be put on hold until some future point when schools are stronger across the city. “Unfortunately, revisions to the DCPS school boundaries are timely and cannot wait,” he said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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