D.C. kicks off school boundary overhaul

October 28, 2013

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration kicked off an effort Monday to overhaul school boundaries and feeder patterns for the first time in decades, a politically charged and long-delayed process that could limit access to some of the city’s most sought-after schools.

The revisions will rewrite rules that determine which schools students have a right to attend based on their city addresses — changes that can ripple across neighborhoods and real estate markets, and that carry undercurrents of race and class. Many of the District’s best-performing schools are in wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods in Upper Northwest. Those schools have long attracted diverse students from across the city, but now are attracting more local families and are bursting with more students than they’re designed to hold.

First planned to be done by June and to take effect in fall 2014, the boundary process has been delayed. An advisory committee was scheduled to meet for the first time Monday night and to recommend changes by May.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith is leading the initiative, co-chairing — with John Hill, chairman of the D.C. Board of Library Trustees — the advisory committee of parents, advocates and government officials.

Community members will have a chance to weigh in on those recommendations before they are finalized by September, Smith said. The changes will take effect in fall 2015, with unspecified grandfather provisions meant to reduce their immediate impact.

“It’s going to be a challenging effort, but it’s a necessary one,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “We are committed to engaging the community throughout the process, and while we know not everyone will be happy with the outcome, we believe the end result will benefit from the participation of a broad range of stakeholders.”

Parents have been anxiously anticipating boundary news for nearly a year, after Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced an overhaul last fall. That announcement triggered panic and pushback, especially among residents who feared being cut out of two overcrowded Northwest schools with strong academic records, Alice Deal Middle and Woodrow Wilson High.

“Bottom line, it’s a heavy lift to do this. It certainly takes a lot of actual work, but it also takes a willingness to take on a very political and emotional process,” Smith said. “We’re now in a place where we feel like we have the capacity to do it.”

Smith’s office will not release recommended revisions until a month after city Democrats nominate a mayoral candidate next spring. That limits the potential political fallout for Gray (D), who hasn’t yet said whether he plans to run for reelection. Smith said that the timeline was developed for reasons outside of politics.

Another potential mayoral candidate, D.C. Council Education Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large), had previously called a Nov. 15 hearing on the boundary change process. He did not return a request for comment Monday.

The committee that will recommend boundary changes has 20 members, including parents of charter- and traditional-school students and people with expertise in urban planning, policy and civil rights.

They will examine traditional schools’ feeder patterns and boundaries, many of which have been made obsolete by school closures and sweeping demographic changes. But they also will consider recommending changes that would affect charter schools, which by law are open to all students across the city, with admissions decided by lottery when interest exceeds available space.

Smith said the committee is likely to discuss whether and how to create a neighborhood preference for charter school admissions. They’ll also consider creating hybrid feeder patterns, in which charter and traditional schools could feed each other.

Also under consideration is an idea that Henderson has previously floated: scrapping boundaries at the high school level and creating citywide, theme-based academies from which students could choose.

Chris Sondreal, the father of a pre-kindergartner, said the boundaries are convoluted and in need of streamlining. Some of his child’s classmates at School Without Walls at Francis Stevens, in Northwest, have the right to attend Wilson High, Sondreal said, while others are guaranteed access to Cardozo High, where test scores and graduation rates are far lower. Some Francis Stevens students have rights to still other high schools.

“It’s a super complicated series of overlapping maps in terms of where your kid can go to school,” Sondreal said. “Rationalizing that process, I welcome that in theory — but there's a lot of trepidation that comes along with it.”

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