“School boundary and feeder pattern changes can be even more challenging than school consolidations,” Henderson told the D.C. Council at a hearing last week. “These discussions truly do pit one community against another.”
In any community, school boundary fights tend to carry undercurrents of race and class. Last year, for example, a decision to shift elementary boundary lines in Loudoun County sparked an outcry and lawsuits from parents of the 1,000 children who were moved. Washington is no different.
Many of the city’s best-
performing schools are clustered in affluent, majority-white neighborhoods in Upper Northwest Washington. For years, those schools have drawn diverse student bodies from wide swaths of the city, but now they are attracting more local families and have become increasingly overcrowded.
All of the schools in Northwest’s Ward 3 are over capacity, with enrollment across the ward growing 23 percent in the past three years, according to staff for Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who has been pressing for boundary changes to ease overcrowding.
Cheh is even sponsoring a bill that would create a commission to study city demographics and recommend boundary changes to the mayor every 10 years. But the council would play no role in redrawing boundaries; nor does the city have an elected school board that would grapple with proposed changes.
Since 2007, the District’s school system has been under the direct control of the mayor. Henderson, appointed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to be schools chancellor, holds the power to determine school boundary lines.
Parents worry that Henderson will shrink the boundaries around popular Northwest schools. Such a decision could shut out poor and minority students from other parts of the city, and it could cause a firestorm among residents who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on homes with access to specific neighborhood schools.
The fiercest battle will almost certainly be over who has the right to attend Deal Middle and Wilson High, two of the city’s highest-performing and most diverse neighborhood secondary schools.
Deal’s enrollment has more than doubled since 2008 — to 1,165 this year — nearly 200 more than the school was designed to hold. Wilson has grown nearly 20 percent since 2008, and it, too, is over capacity. The city has spent about $200 million renovating both schools in recent years.
The intense demand for Deal and Wilson highlights a striking difference from the rest of the city, where charter schools are growing quickly and DCPS is proposing to close schools because of under-enrollment.