D.C. school boundary proposal draws mixed reactions

The District’s newest plan to overhaul public school boundaries prompted a broad range of reactions this week, as parents and activists began examining the proposed changes and what they would mean for the city.

Many people applauded the move to commit to neighborhood schools and abandon proposals for more radical changes that would have left school enrollment up to chance in some form of lottery.

Some embraced the proposal to do away with most K-8 schools in favor of reintroducing more stand-alone middle schools, calling it important for building a strong system that can compete with charter schools. Others were glad to see recommendations to reopen several elementary schools that were closed just a year ago for low enrollment.

“Praise the Lord!” said Shannon Smith, who is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit over those school closures and whose grandchildren attended Ferebee-Hope in Southeast Washington, one of the shuttered schools that could reopen. “I’m happy to hear that.”

But as with boundary changes almost anywhere, the redrawn maps yielded some clear winners and losers, ensuring that debate will continue in coming months. For many residents, the new proposal does not answer the most pressing question facing D.C. schools: What will it take to ensure that they improve faster and more consistently in every community so that children have access to a great school no matter where they live?

“It ignores the elephant in the room,” said Jeanne Contardo, a Ward 7 parent. “As long as you have unequal distribution of educational opportunity across the District, any attempt to redraw boundaries . . . is going to cause chaos.”

Contardo praised Abigail Smith, deputy mayor for education, for her efforts to solicit and respond to community feedback, saying the boundary recommendations seem sensible.

“I like what they were trying to do, but I don’t really see it being implemented,” she said, given the lame-duck status of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and likely pushback from communities facing the prospect of losing access to schools they now have a right to attend.

Gray is slated to announce final boundaries in September, but it will be up to his successor to implement the changes. Among those vying for the mayor’s job, none said they would adopt the initial three proposals, first floated in April.

Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser and independent David A. Catania said Friday that they need more time to review the proposal before saying which specific parts they will or will not support.

Catania said the new version is an “improvement over the three plans we received earlier this spring, which were non-starters,” but said he still has significant concerns about certain elements. “For me, the real issue is, where is the plan to improve all matter-of-right neighborhood schools? That should be our primary focus, and it isn’t,” he said.

Communities east of the Anacostia River — traditionally a dividing line between wealthy and poor — would lose their right to cross the river to attend Eastern High on Capitol Hill. Among neighborhood e-mail groups Friday, that proposal immediately drew fire as being unfair.

Another community likely to push back is Crestwood, an affluent area east of Rock Creek Park and one of several parts of the city that would lose their access to two sought-after Northwest schools, Alice Deal Middle and Wilson High.

“We’re not happy at all,” said parent Carolyn Reynold, who said she bought a home in the neighborhood in part because of its access to Deal and Wilson. “We’re very disappointed and upset at the prospect of being told that we need to send our kids to lower-performing schools.”

Children in her neighborhood would be sent to MacFarland Middle, a closed Northwest school that would reopen with a focus on dual-language instruction, and Roosevelt High, a school that has struggled to attract families but is slated to be renovated and turned into an international-focused school.

“It’s hard to trust them that it will be good enough when it’s time for us to go there,” said Jeff Steele, another Crestwood parent, adding that there’s no money in the capital budget to pay for a major renovation of MacFarland or either of the other two new neighborhood middle schools called for in the proposal.

Pedro Rubio, an education advocate and former D.C. Council candidate who lives a few miles northeast of Crestwood, sees things differently. He is part of a group that’s been campaigning for the new middle schools as an essential part of rebuilding a strong neighborhood school system. “It’s a big win,” Rubio said.

Parts of Ward 2 also would be rezoned to send children to a new middle school that would open at the old Shaw Middle and to Cardozo High, which has one of the lowest graduation rates in the city. Cardozo’s boundaries would shift entirely into the city’s Northwest quadrant.

Stephanie Maltz, an education activist and Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from Ward 2, said she’s eager for more details about plans to ensure that both schools are high-quality and attractive to families.

“I don’t really know what this middle school is going to look like and how it’s going to be successful,” she said.

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