D.C. school boundary overhaul said to be on track, but parents uneasy


D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The District is on track to overhaul school boundaries and feeder patterns for the 2015-16 school year, city officials told the D.C. Council on Monday, but there are far more questions than answers about what the changes will be and how they will affect city families.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who is leading the committee that will recommend boundary changes, said her team has spent the past two months gathering feedback from parents through focus groups across the city.

Parents’ top priority is equitable access to quality schools for all children, Smith said. But families also want predictable access to schools and stronger neighborhood schools that children living nearby have a right to attend, she said.

The challenge is to translate those values and others, including a preference for diverse schools, into a workable and concrete policy. The boundary committee expects to put together several policy options before unveiling them for community input in March.

Smith plans to release a draft proposal in May and will hold large-scale community meetings before Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announces a final plan in September.

“We want to make this process as inclusive and as transparent as possible,” Smith said.

The boundary overhaul is the first in four decades and comes as officials grapple with overcrowding in some areas, half-empty schools in others and how and whether to include fast-growing charter schools in plans for distributing students equitably.

It’s a process that could limit access to some of the city’s best-regarded schools and is likely to affect school demographics and real estate markets. The prospect of change has stirred anxious debate among parents, many of whom fear that the boundary changes will cut them out of desirable schools.

Smith said her team is making an effort to reach out to a broad cross-section of parents, but the focus groups have not been representative of the city. Almost all the people who have attended had a college education, and more than three-quarters had graduate degrees. Only 7 percent of the participants live in Wards 7 and 8.

Several D.C. Council members, noting that many families have purchased homes based on current school boundaries, raised concerns Monday about undermining parents’ confidence by sending their children to less-desirable schools. Wouldn’t it make more sense, they argued, to improve academic programs — and make more schools acceptable to parents — before redrawing the map?

“The concern that I’m hearing is by redrawing boundaries and feeder patterns, we may be drawing people out of options that they see are stronger. Are we putting the cart before the horse?” said Education Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large).

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that while schools are improving quickly, the city can’t wait to fix its confusing and antiquated boundaries.

“We don’t have the luxury of doing one or the other, or one before the other,” Henderson said. “We have to do both at the same time. We have to improve programmatic quality and innovate at the same time that we’re figuring out how to distribute” students across the city, she said.

Henderson said she aims to improve the city’s long-struggling middle schools, for example, by ensuring that all of them have quality programming. But she said the city should also think carefully about how to harness the success of charter middle schools.

Henderson drew wide criticism late last year when she praised charter schools’ success at the middle school level and said that the District should consider funneling middle-grade students into charters.

“Parents want good options, so we should figure out how to get as many good options in front of families as possible, not giving up on one system or the other,” Henderson said.

The boundary committee is studying student-assignment policies in other cities that have considerable school choice, including Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. Meeting minutes posted online show some of the specific questions they are considering — for example, if a D.C. student enrolls in a charter school or out-of-boundary school, should that student give up his or her right to the neighborhood school?

But much of the discussion has been more general. Smith and Henderson declined to answer council members’ questions about specific schools or neighborhoods, repeatedly saying that “everything is on the table.”

“This is an opportunity to remake a system of public schools in the city that parents can be proud of, will choose for their families,” Henderson said. “We’re taking the time to do that. We want to create a system that is right and is lasting.”

Smith said there will be “significant grandfathering” to allow students to stay in their current schools after the boundaries are redrawn. But she said the committee has not decided whether students will be guaranteed access to the middle schools and high schools they currently feed into, or whether younger siblings also will be allowed to attend schools to which they are currently assigned.

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