D.C. residents appear to support neighborhood schools

D.C. residents appear to overwhelmingly support maintaining the District’s neighborhood schools instead of moving to a lottery-based system, according to data presented at a public meeting Thursday night.

But Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith cautioned against reading too much into the data, emphasizing that much of the information came from survey responses provided in writing by residents of Northwest Washington.

Of about 300 responses submitted, more than 170 came from residents of wards 3 and 4, which include some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Just 23 responses came from wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River.

“We’re sharing the data because we want people to see it, but we should not assume it’s representative of views across the city,” Smith told hundreds of parents who gathered at Coolidge High School in Northwest for a community meeting about proposals to overhaul school boundaries and student-assignment policies.

Two additional meetings are planned for Saturday, at Dunbar High in the central part of the city and at Anacostia High in Southeast. Smith said she and her team plan to reach out to communities whose voices have not been heard, with the aim of using the feedback to prepare a final proposal that city officials hope to release to the public in June.

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

“We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff out there, and we want to continue to shape it and refine it,” Smith said.

One of the three proposals would tinker with the current boundary system, in which students have a right to attend their neighborhood schools or can enter a lottery to seek admission to out-of-boundary schools. But two proposals would fundamentally change the way students are assigned to schools, introducing lotteries — citywide at the high school level and at a smaller-scale for younger students — in place of neighborhood schools.

The idea of losing the right to attend schools based on home address triggered immediate opposition, particularly from parents who are happy with their neighborhood schools and in many cases bought homes based on the promise that their children could attend them.

Mayoral candidates Muriel Bowser, the Democratic nominee, and David I. Catania, an independent, reacted to the proposals with skepticism.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) plans to announce a final proposal in September, but it would not become effective until fall 2015, which means that the next mayor will decide how and whether to move forward with changes.

City officials are pressing to redraw attendance zones and rethink how students are assigned to schools. They contend that decades of shifting demographics and school closures — coupled with the rising popularity of charter schools — have left the city with an unworkable system. Some city schools sit nearly empty while others have serious overcrowding.

At Thursday’s meeting, parents were not asked for further comment on neighborhood schools and lotteries; they have already made their feelings clear, Smith said. Instead, parents were asked to comment on topics about which public sentiment has been more muddled, including how much the city should invest in new specialized programs and selective schools.

Such offerings — including the application-only School Without Walls and dual-language instruction programs — have been a matter of debate recently. Ward 7 residents have sought to establish a selective middle school east of the Anacostia River, and Dunbar High School graduates have been considering a proposal to convert that school into a selective-admissions institution.

Deena Shetler, a parent at Janney Elementary in Northwest, said specialized and selective programs might help fill city high schools that have undergone expensive renovations but are nevertheless under-enrolled.

But Ron Hampton, a longtime advocate for and former employee of Roosevelt High, said increasing the number of selective programs would siphon off more students from struggling neighborhood schools.

“That doesn’t make sense if you’re trying to fix the school system and it’s the neighborhood schools that need fixing,” Hampton said. He added that he believes students benefit from diversity not only of race and class but also of motivation and academic ability.

In a first round of community meetings, nearly two-thirds of survey respondents supported establishing more selective high schools; an even greater number — 83 percent — said they would support establishing magnet programs within neighborhood high schools.

Parents also weighed in on the coexistence of traditional and charter public schools, including whether there should be a cap on charter school growth and whether charter schools should feed into traditional schools and vice versa.

Many parents continued to question proposals to establish new lotteries, and the room erupted in applause after Deborah Raviv, a Janney mother, used her time at the microphone to invite others to sign a petition in support of maintaining neighborhood schools.

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