D.C. school boundary revisions will not be ready before the fall, officials say


D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson (TWP)
April 1, 2013

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s politically sensitive effort to overhaul school boundaries is moving more slowly than anticipated and will not be finalized in June as planned, officials said Monday.

Work on the revisions will continue throughout the summer and into the fall, according to spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz. Despite the delay, the changes are still expected to take effect for the 2014-15 school year.

“We want to make sure this process is as thorough and inclusive as possible,” Salmanowitz wrote in an e-mail. “It takes time to get all the right pieces together.”

The comprehensive review of boundaries, feeder patterns and enrollment policies is the first since the 1970s and could trigger a broad and divisive fight over access to some of the city’s highest-performing schools.

When the chancellor announced the undertaking this past fall, she said her staff would begin holding community meetings on proposed boundary changes in January.

Since then, no meetings have been held. No proposals have been made. And anxiety among parents — including among those who purchased their homes based on school zones — has been building.

“As months have been passing, parents have been wondering and asking,” said Jenny Backus, a mother at Lafayette Elementary, which feeds into Alice Deal Middle and Woodrow Wilson High, two of the city’s most sought-after and overcrowded schools. “I think there are some worries out there that we don’t know what’s happening yet.”

Backus is among more than a dozen Lafayette parents who began organizing months ago to defend the school’s boundaries and feeder pattern. They pleaded their case to schools officials in an online letter that has been signed by more than 300 people.

“We don’t want to wake up in a month and realize somehow we missed an opportunity to get our voices heard,” Backus said. “We know they have a really hard job and they’re going to try to balance a lot of competing interests.”

The boundary issue comes at a busy time for schools officials, who are preparing to close 13 schools in June and planning for the subsequent displacement of more than 2,500 students.

Henderson has floated the possibility of eliminating high school boundaries, replacing assigned neighborhood schools with magnets open to applicants citywide. But otherwise she has provided few clues about what might be in the offing.

The chancellor told D.C. Council members in March that boundaries-related work has been proceeding, even though it hasn’t been visible. Consultants have pulled together demographic and other data to inform decisions.

Now the school system is convening a task force that will be responsible for recommending changes to the chancellor based on community members’ questions and concerns.

The task force will include about 20 members of varied backgrounds, officials said, including parents from each ward; residents familiar with schools, neighborhoods and history; legal and policy experts; and D.C. government officials.

The chancellor said last month that the task force would develop a draft proposal before asking for reaction and input from parents. Now there are hints that parents may have a chance to weigh in earlier, before recommendations are even drafted.

“We look forward to engaging parents and the community about their concerns before making even initial proposals,” Salmanowitz wrote in an e-mail. “It’s still very early in the process.”

Salmanowitz said she could not say when the members will be named. She added that officials have put the boundary-revision effort on hold so they can consult with incoming deputy mayor for education Abigail Smith, who starts work April 10.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has urged schools officials to engage parents early on, said the slowed timeline may bode well.

“If you don’t have an open, transparent process — that not just makes it look like parents are going to be engaged, but actually engages parents in the discussion and the debate — then I don’t see how you’re going to do a good job on this,” he said.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who represents Upper Northwest neighborhoods that feed into Deal and Wilson, agreed that the delay could be a good thing if it means that parents will be included in the decision-making process.

But the lack of information so far has engendered angst and rumors, Cheh said. Officials should start the public conversation soon, she said — at least about general principles, such as how current students and younger siblings will be grandfathered into existing boundaries and feeder patterns.

“The sooner they get out there with some basic parameters, the sooner they get out there and try to hear from parents — the better it will be,” Cheh 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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