D.C. releases proposed school boundaries and far-reaching student assignment policies

D.C. officials released a proposal for new elementary school boundaries Saturday, the first comprehensive overhaul of the politically sensitive partitions in four decades.

The proposed new lines — redrawn to adjust for schools that are overcrowded or underused and to address travel or safety issues — could affect thousands of families. But even more far-reaching­ than the reconfigured map is a set of three policy proposals the city also unveiled at a public meeting, parts of which could fundamentally change how students are assigned to traditional public schools.

One scenario is a refined version of the current arrangement, which gives families the right to attend their neighborhood schools from elementary through high school, with an option to apply for out-of-boundary slots elsewhere.

But the other proposals envision more radical changes, giving parents broader choice but also more uncertainty. Under one scenario, families moving into a new home would not know for sure which elementary, middle or high schools their children would attend because admissions would be based on a form of lottery.

That would be a notable shift away from traditional neighborhood schools in a city that has grappled with the question of whether such schools can thrive — or even survive — in the face of a fast-growing charter school sector.

Areas that could be affected by proposed changes to D.C.'s elementary school zone boundary

Officials will settle on a plan after considering community feedback in coming months. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is scheduled to release a final policy in September that would take effect in fall 2015. But Gray’s defeat in Tuesday’s Democratic primary has injected an element of uncertainty over whether his decisions will actually take hold. He will leave office at the beginning of next year.

D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser, the Democratic nominee for mayor, and David A. Catania, the independent she will face in the general election, have said they cannot commit to supporting Gray’s plan. Bowser, who stopped by Saturday’s meeting at Dunbar High School in Northwest, declined to comment on the three proposals.

“I’m going to read them first,” she said.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith addressed the issue Saturday when she presented the proposals to more than 120 parents and community members. She said staff and stakeholders have poured countless hours into thoughtful planning and intend to devote much more time in coming months.

“I would hope that anyone coming into the mayor’s seat will respect that process,” Smith said.

Officials planned to focus on redrawing boundaries. But Smith said they quickly realized that there were many larger issues facing the District, a city of dramatically uneven education options, with just one-quarter of students attending their neighborhood schools.

“Given how families are currently behaving, where there’s so much movement already, it seemed like the right thing to do: to step back and look at how we are approaching the broader questions of student assignment,” said Smith, who is leading a 20-member­ committee that will make recommendations to Gray.

The prospect of new boundaries and student-assignment policies has triggered enormous anxiety among parents across the city, who have flocked to meetings with questions about what the process might mean for their children and property values. In Washington, as in most jurisdictions, where students go to school is a matter fraught with race and class tensions. The proposals on the table almost certainly will generate significant debate.

The most intense disagreement may come from the conflict between creating more options for families by expanding lottery-based admissions and establishing predictability by guaranteeing rights to neighborhood schools.

“I think these changes are, in the short-term, built around the retention of young white people,” said Randall Chandler, a Northeast Washington father who sends his daughter across town to Hardy Middle School because he finds his local school lacking. “I’ve been here a long time, and I want my child to have access to a great education, too.”

Judson Greif, who lives across the street from Capitol Hill’s School Within School, a highly sought-after citywide school, has a different perspective. Greif’s son didn’t get into the school on his first try in the enrollment lottery. “Predictability is much greater than choice in terms of importance. That way you can plan,” he said.

Some families who bought homes in Upper Northwest because of access to good schools — especially Alice Deal Middle and Wilson High — have pledged to fight any proposal to replace that right with a lottery.

Two of the policy proposals contemplate giving children the right to attend pre-kindergarten at their neighborhood school. Currently, all pre-kindergarten enrollment is determined by lottery, which means families have no guarantee that their children can attend a school near home.

The right to neighborhood pre-kindergarten was popular with many parents at Saturday’s meeting. But it would come with challenges, especially figuring out how to shoehorn more students into already crowded elementary schools. Some see it as a step away from diversity in a city where housing patterns are segregated by race and class.

“The schools are going to be all black, all Hispanic,” said Nydria Humphries of Southeast Washington, who worries that it will be more difficult for children from east of the Anacostia River — where many schools are almost entirely African American — to get into integrated schools. “We want our kids to be able to get along with people of other races.”

The proposals also float the idea of four new middle schools, including an application-only school east of the Anacostia River. The others would be in the central part of the city, perhaps at the old Shaw Middle School, not named in the proposal and sitting empty; another in the southern part of Ward 4 in Northwest Washington, perhaps where the old MacFarland Middle is located; and another in the northern part of Ward 4.

Each plan offers some provision for setting aside a percentage of seats in each school for out-of-boundary students, something that does not currently exist. Students from low-performing schools — a term the city has not yet defined — would have, in many cases, preference for those out-of-boundary seats.

The Dunbar meeting was the first of six planned for this month. Smith said that the proposals are not set in stone and that it is important for parents to weigh in on which elements they do and do not support.

Here are outlines of the three policy proposals, which Smith’s office calls “policy examples”:

Policy Example A

Of the three proposals, this one departs most dramatically from the current system.

Preschool admissions would continue to be lottery-based, but elementary-school enrollment would be very different. Instead of having the right to attend an assigned neighborhood school, children would be entitled to a seat in one of three or four schools in a “choice set” near their homes, with a lottery determining admissions.

Charter schools could agree to join a choice set under this scenario, which means they would accept neighborhood children instead of conducting citywide enrollment lotteries. At least one school in each choice set would have to offer some kind of special program, such as Montessori or dual-language instruction — a feature that Smith says would force the school system to provide more such special programs in every part of the city.

Instead of feeding automatically from an elementary school into a middle school, children would have the right to attend one of the two middle-grade schools nearest their home address, with admissions based on preference but not guaranteed.

A citywide lottery would determine high school admissions, with students who live nearby a school or have a sibling already enrolled in a school getting preference at that school.

Policy Example B

This proposal most closely mirrors the current system, although there is a big shift in early childhood education: 3-year-olds from low-income families would have the right to attend their neighborhood schools, if preschool is offered there, and all 4-year-olds in the city would have that right, as well.

Students would have the right to attend one elementary school based on the newly proposed boundaries. Each elementary school would feed into one middle school and one high school. Students who gain a spot — via lottery — into an out-of-boundary elementary school would be able to continue with their classmates to feeder middle schools and high schools.

The boundary review was initially driven in part because of overcrowding at two coveted Northwest schools, Deal and Wilson.

Parents in several neighborhoods worry that redrawn boundaries could cut them out of Deal and Wilson. But almost all schools that feed Deal and Wilson would continue to do so under the one proposal that guarantees a right to a neighborhood middle and high school.

The exceptions would be Eaton Elementary, which would feed Hardy Middle and then Wilson, and Oyster-Adams Bilingual, a K-8 school that would send students to Cardozo High School. The scenario also considers the possibility of a new high school in Northwest to relieve the pressure on Wilson, the only comprehensive high school west of Rock Creek Park.

Policy Example C

This proposal is something of a compromise between the first two. It guarantees that 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds can go to their neighborhood schools for ­pre-kindergarten and gives children the right to attend one elementary school based on the new boundaries.

Middle-schoolers would enter a lottery to gain entrance into one of two or three middle schools near their homes. High school admissions would be conducted by citywide lottery, without any preference for students living nearby.

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