D.C. releases new boundaries proposal with emphasis on neighborhood schools

D.C. officials on Thursday put forth a new proposal for public school boundaries that would maintain a system of neighborhood schools while providing a pathway for children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, to gain access to schools outside their immediate communities.

The proposal would redraw the city’s boundaries for elementary, middle and high schools in an effort to adjust for decades of school closures and demographic change that created a patchwork of overlapping attendance zones, leaving some schools overcrowded while others were underused.

It also attempts to create a more coherent, consistent and predictable school system, part of an effort to keep the city’s families from fleeing to charter schools or the suburbs, particularly at the middle school level, when many families have been choosing to exit. The shifts, which align with Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s recent efforts to bolster offerings for middle-grade students, would come with three new neighborhood middle schools and one new selective middle school open to students across the city.

Tens of thousands of children would see their attendance rights change if the proposal is adopted. It would usher in particularly dramatic shifts among middle and high school boundaries and would significantly shrink the attendance zones for Alice Deal Middle and Wilson High, Northwest schools that are two of the city’s most sought-after and have boundaries that are political lightning rods.

Eastern High’s boundary also would shift significantly, with students east of the Anacostia River — another political fault line — reassigned to Anacostia High.

Read the proposal

Boundary proposal

D.C. officials propose new school boundaries and student assignment policies that commit to the idea of neighborhood schools and redraw school boundary lines. Read it.

The city’s re-commitment to neighborhood schools comes in the wake of enormous resistance to a previous set of proposals released in April, which had considered replacing neighborhood schools — which students have a right to attend based on their home addresses — with lottery admissions.

“We believe strongly that this document reflects public input,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who heads an advisory committee that is working to overhaul city school boundaries for the first time in four decades. “Overwhelmingly, what we heard was people wanted a guaranteed system of right.”

Even with the most controversial elements of a policy change now off the table, the newest suggestion for an overhaul is likely to generate fierce debate. School boundaries in any city are more than lines on a map; they shape communities and real estate markets, and they are often fraught with tensions over race and class.

The new proposal now goes out for another round of feedback, starting with three public meetings next week. The advisory committee plans to send a revised set of recommendations to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in August, and Gray is expected to announce the final policy in September, with changes taking effect in fall 2015.

But it is unclear whether Gray’s decisions will take hold after he leaves office in January, as it will be up to his successor to implement the changes. Two of the people vying for his job, Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser and independent candidate David A. Catania, rejected the initial proposals, saying none of them could be adopted as written. Carol Schwartz, who announced her independent candidacy this week, has said the process should be halted until a new mayor is in place.

Politicians and parents have repeatedly questioned whether it makes sense for the city to spend so much energy overhauling boundaries when so many schools are in need of improvement. Smith acknowledged that school quality varies widely across the city, but said that the committee concluded that a smart revision could help strengthen schools and families’ connections to them.

“We are on an unsustainable course, and we can either bury our heads in the sand or say, all right, how can we devise a way forward?” Smith said.

Thousands of students across the city currently have rights to attend more than one elementary school, an artifact of past school closures. Others have school assignments that don’t align with one another: A student’s assigned elementary school might feed into a middle school that is different than the middle school attendance zone in which that student lives.

The proposed boundaries would do away with those multiple and overlapping rights, giving each student the right to attend one elementary, one middle and one high school. Students in schools that offer specialized programs, such as dual-language instruction, would also have the right to feed into middle and high schools that offer the same specialized program.

New assignments would take effect beginning in 2015, but it would take years for new policies to fully kick in because of grandfathering provisions meant to minimize disruption for individual families. Children in second grade or younger next year would be subject to the new middle school assignments.

The most profound changes would happen at the middle school level, where about half of students would see their rights change if the proposal is adopted.

Those shifts are mostly because the city’s K-8 schools — which offer limited academic and extracurricular options for middle-schoolers and have struggled to attract families — would be converted to elementary schools, with older students assigned to three new neighborhood middle schools.

The proposal also adds an application-only school east of the Anacostia River at the old Ron Brown Middle School building, an effort to begin to spread specialized programs more equitably across the city.

Most high school boundaries would also shift significantly, with some of the biggest changes at schools in the fastest-gentrifying parts of the city, such as Cardozo and Roosevelt. Cardozo’s zone, which currently extends far into Northeast Washington, would become an entirely Northwest school, encompassing wealthier neighborhoods around Dupont Circle and downtown that are currently zoned to Wilson.

Some of the most controversial changes are likely to be those that affect access to Wilson and Deal. Wilson’s attendance zone, which currently covers nearly one-third of the city, would shrink to an area almost entirely west of Rock Creek Park, the whitest and most affluent part of the District.

Several neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park, such as Crestwood, would be cut out of both Deal and Wilson, an idea that Bowser, who represents that area on the D.C. Council, has previously said she will not endorse.

Besides redrawing boundary maps, the advisory committee issued 39 separate policy recommendations that also could have far-reaching effects.

Those recommendations include provisions meant to address vocal concerns from some parents that reinforcing a system of neighborhood schools only exacerbates the city’s segregated housing patterns. The proposal would set aside 10 percent of the seats in every school for out-of-boundary students; at-risk students would get priority at the city’s most affluent schools.

Starting in 2018, an additional 10 percent of the city’s sixth- and ninth-grade seats also would be set aside for out-of-boundary students, an effort to create new entry points into middle and high schools.

The committee also recommends that the school system guarantee access to pre-kindergarten for families assigned to Title I low-income schools, which account for the majority of traditional schools across the city. Currently, pre-kindergarten admissions are entirely by lottery.

That change could have the effect of drawing more families — including middle-class families — into their neighborhood schools, opening the possibility that they might then stay in the traditional school system.

The proposal also says that some schools recently closed for low enrollment, such as Ferebee-Hope, Kenilworth and Marshall elementaries, should be reopened to offer all students adequate access to a walkable school.

“Families want a city-wide system of neighborhood public schools that is invested in equitably and that provides predictable and fair access to high quality schools in communities everywhere in this city,” the committee wrote in a letter introducing its proposal.

The debate over boundaries in recent months spurred many parents and activists to argue for greater coordination and planning between traditional and charter schools, saying that it makes little sense to shake up boundaries without considering the impact of current and future charters.

The committee acknowledged that concern and called on the city to address the need for joint planning in the future, but stopped short of recommending specific changes.

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