D.C. school boundary proposal spurs citywide debate about quality

D.C. parents and activists are calling the District’s latest proposal to overhaul school boundaries an improvement over previous iterations, but many continue to voice concerns that the plan does not address some of the most pressing challenges facing the city’s public schools.

Chief among those is the uneven quality of schools across the city, parents said repeatedly at a series of public meetings last week. Some urged city officials to slow or stop the boundary overhaul until more schools improve, when redrawing lines on a map and rewriting rules for out-of-boundary enrollment might cause less pain and concern.

They said they don’t just want neighborhood schools that their children have a right to attend — they also want those neighborhood schools to be good. Parents expressed worries that new boundaries won’t fix struggling schools and could make it more difficult for children, especially those living outside a few affluent and gentrifying pockets of the city, to get into better options on the other side of town.

“We want to be able to go to our neighborhood schools, but until we feel we can do that, we need a choice,” said D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7). Alexander said she would like to see the boundary overhaul put off until school quality improves enough that parents start volunteering to return to neighborhood schools.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who leads the citizens advisory committee that developed the boundary proposal, said the effort is not meant to solve the problem of school quality on its own. But revised boundaries and student-assignment policies are a way to encourage improvement by giving parents a more predictable path from preschool through high school, she said.

Faith Hubbard, a member of the citizens advisory committee, said the boundary process already has triggered an intense citywide focus on school quality and is the first step in forcing the kinds of investment — both from D.C. Public Schools and from local communities — that families want to see in schools.

“This way, at least people are looking the lack of quality dead in the face,” said Hubbard, a Ward 5 parent. “There’s something at stake, something to respond to. Just waiting on DCPS to improve quality, it could be another 10 or 20 years.”

Some of the most intense opposition to the new proposal came from neighborhoods such as Crestwood, a leafy enclave east of Rock Creek Park that would lose access to Alice Deal Middle and Woodrow Wilson High, two of the city’s most sought-after schools.

Crestwood mother Christine Churchill said it isn’t fair to force families to attend lower-performing schools than they had before. Her children would be rezoned to MacFarland Middle and Roosevelt High schools.

“There’s just no comparison in the performance records,” she said Thursday at Takoma Education Campus in Northwest at a meeting that drew about 150 attendees, more than both other meetings combined. “It needs to be the professionals and adults that improve the schools . . . to make them so compelling that we will want go there,” she said.

Robin Appleberry, another Crestwood resident and the mother of two young children, said she respects her neighbors’ views but is open to the idea of a future without Deal and Wilson.

“We can’t just cling to the proven schools,” she said. “If parents like us, stable adults with stable jobs, won’t invest in a new school, then who will?”

The city’s proposal does provide a pathway for students to get into schools outside their attendance zone. Elementary schools would set aside 10 percent of their seats for out-of-boundary students, while middle and high schools would each set aside an additional 10 percent of seats for students entering at the sixth and ninth grades.

Almost all schools currently enroll more out-of-boundary students than they would be required to under the new proposal. One fear, particularly east of the Anacostia River, is that if schools west of the river succeed in attracting more neighborhood families, there will be less space for children from elsewhere.

Parents worry that “they’ll be forced to come back to neighborhood schools that really haven’t improved and in fact have gotten worse,” said Trayon White, the former Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.

Also contentious is the proposal to give priority to at-risk students in lotteries for out-of-boundary admission to about 20 of the city’s most affluent schools. The policy is meant to promote diversity and offer extra help for the neediest children, but parents at some schools worried that an influx of at-risk children might derail their school-improvement efforts, while some middle-class families said it would make it harder for them to get into good schools in other neighborhoods.

William Baltimore, a firefighter and Ward 4 father of three, said his children were able to enroll through the lottery at three desirable Northwest schools: Eaton Elementary, Deal Middle and Wilson High. But families like his would be at a disadvantage under the new proposal, he said.

The advisory committee plans to revise its proposal before submitting a final recommendation to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in August. Gray plans to announce new boundaries in September, but it’s not clear how much of his plan will stick, because implementation will be up to whoever succeeds him in November.

Independent candidate David A. Catania said in a statement Friday that he has concerns about the proposal’s feasibility and impact and that he would not support any plan that pushes families into lower-performing schools. He said he would not throw out the work that has been done but would use it as a foundation for refining workable plans to move forward.

“It is in the best interest of current and future students that we take the time to get the final plan right rather than hastily move forward in order to meet an artificial deadline,” Catania said, adding that whatever Gray announces in September will be the “next phase of an important public conversation” that will undoubtedly need further study and planning.

Carol Schwartz, who also is running as an independent, said she appreciates the “good and healthy” discussion and believes a boundary overhaul is needed. But no final decisions should be made until the next mayor takes office, she said.

Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser has not said specifically what parts the proposal she would and wouldn’t support. In a radio interview last week with WAMU (88.5 FM) she alluded to the need to secure capital funding for new schools envisioned in the proposal and said it is important to make sure “that any boundary changes are happening once we as a city have invested across the whole city and the changes that we need.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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