For many young D.C. parents, city schools remain a sticking point
De’Andre Anderson and his wife don’t have children yet. But when the couple bought a home in Southeast Washington after years of renting on Capitol Hill, Anderson, 43, began mulling what they could do to help the neighborhood schools. ¶ Now Anderson is leading a campaign to persuade Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to establish the first application-only secondary school east of the Anacostia River. ¶ “I would like to have some quality schools in my neighborhood — or at least on this side of the river — that I could send my kids to,” said Anderson, who moved to Hillcrest with his wife, Lemlem Meconen-Anderson, 35, last year. ¶ The District’s struggling school system shaped city demographics for decades, pushing countless young families and parents-to-be into the suburbs in search of a decent public education. ¶ But that long trend now appears to be shifting. Public school enrollment in the District has risen nearly 18 percent over the past five years, mostly in the early grades and charter schools, as an increasing number of parents have been persuaded
to give D.C. schools a try. The change comes as young, affluent people who have flocked to the District over thepast decade — millennials and members of Generation X, born in the 1970s and 1980s — seek to stay in the city, reluctant to give up their urban lifestyles for cul-de-sacs and long commutes.
They have been wooed by free preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a growing number of charters that offer specialty programs and — in some parts of the city — newly revitalized neighborhood schools.
But whether young parents and those who plan to have families will stay in the city over the long term is an open question, and one that may depend on their collective willingness to participate in schools that previous middle-class generations have sought to avoid.
They grapple with angst over charter-school enrollment lotteries with admissions odds that rival Ivy League universities; lingering uncertainty about the strength of academic offerings; and simmering tensions over delicate issues of race and class that sometimes flare up in PTAs and community groups.
“If parents make the commitment to keep their kid in the neighborhood school, and their neighbors make the commitment to keep their kids in the school, they’ll find that they’ll create the school they want,” said Suzanne Wells, a D.C. parent whose organizing efforts helped turn Capitol Hill schools into some of the most sought-after in the city.
Still, many young people remain deeply ambivalent about how and whether the District’s schools will work for their children over the long term.
“This has been great, but for the next phase of life, we’re just going to have to suck it up and move to the suburbs,” said Columbia Heights resident Jennifer Thompson, 28, who said she and her husband are not willing to send their future children to city schools.
Tensions over race, class
Cities across the country are wrestling with how to hold onto young parents, according to Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara, an assistant professor of urban education at Temple University, who wrote about Philadelphia’s concerted effort to court young professionals in her 2013 book, “Marketing Cities, Marketing Schools.”
But the influx of newcomers can stir tensions over race and class in any city, including in the District, where millennials and Gen-X’ers have turned the city into a whiter and more middle-class place over the past decade.
Lawyer Krista Robertson, 34, said that she and other middle-class parents who had bought into a gentrifying neighborhood southeast of Capitol Hill felt unwanted when they decided to enroll their kids at Payne Elementary and join the PTA.
“I was exhausted by the whole process,” said Robertson, who is black and Hispanic, and who said she felt as if longtime Payne parents and some teachers viewed her as a “race traitor” for seeking to raise money and improve the school. Robertson’s daughter attended Payne for two years before transferring to a private school this fall.
Payne’s principal didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Cucchiara said it’s common for poor and working-class parents who have invested in their schools for a long time to feel frustrated by newcomers’ attempts to fix those schools.
“There’s sort of an assumption that they should just be really happy that the middle-class people are there,” Cucchiara said.
Daniel del Pielago, an organizer for the community group Empower DC, said some parents he worked with last year at Tubman Elementary — a school of predominantly Latino and black students in Columbia Heights — reacted with skepticism when a white father took the helm of the PTA and laid out plans to raise money and make improvements.
“I know there was a lot of tension, feeling like ‘who are you to come in right now and want to change things,’ ” said del Pielago. Tubman was already making progress, he said, and the push to improve it — while well-meaning — seemed to ignore the efforts already underway.
Josephine Hodges, 61, whose two grandchildren attend Tubman, served as PTA vice president at the time. She said some black parents stopped coming to PTA meetings, assuming that their needs wouldn’t be considered. “No one gave him a chance. He came off strong — I told him you have to take baby steps, especially in our community,” said Hodges, who is black.
“We all bleed the same blood,” she said. “We need to get together and not let the little petty prejudice stand in the way of our children.”
Indeed, many families of all backgrounds say they want diverse schools, but such schools have been rare in a city with segregated housing patterns. “It is an important piece of the puzzle, and I would like to see more and more of them in the city,” said Abigail Smith, the city’s deputy mayor of education.
Luck and trade-offs
Tension aside, many young parents said they are doing everything they can to keep their family life in the city. Lowrey Redmond, 37, agonized for months about where to send her 3-year-old daughter, Adele, studying test data and visiting open houses across the city.
She wanted to contribute to the positive momentum at her neighborhood school, Garrison Elementary in Logan Circle, which parents saved from closure last year with a massive public relations campaign that garnered support from neighborhood shopkeepers, churches and politicians.
But Redmond wasn’t convinced that the city is committed to helping Garrison parents turn the school around. The aging school is in need of a renovation, and a sinkhole has made part of its athletic field unusable for months.
In the spring, Adele won lottery admission to one of the most sought-after charters in the city, Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), and Redmond decided to enroll there.
Redmond said she’s grateful for the good luck. But there are trade-offs: The school is four miles away, creating complicated drop-off and pickup routines, and making it harder to meet and befriend other school families.
Redmond is frustrated with the choice between commuting to a well-regarded charter school and walking a few blocks to a transitioning neighborhood school, which feeds into a high school where four in 10 students graduate on time
“Neither scenario is perfect for a family like mine,” she said, adding that she wants to live in a city where kids don’t have to be lucky to be assured a great school.
“I don’t want to move to the suburbs unless D.C. pushes me out,” she said.
Many D.C. parents are willing to at least try city schools — particularly for preschool, a free alternative to expensive day care or private nannies. But they often keep one eye toward the exit.
“You move into a neighborhood and you want to invest in the school just as much as you want to invest in the community,” said Ayana Thompson, 27, who recently bought a home in Southeast Washington’s Fort Dupont neighborhood.
Less than two months after her daughter started preschool at nearby Anne Beers Elementary, Thompson has already begun checking out private schools for next fall.
It’s not because Beers is a bad school, said Thompson, a graduate student at Catholic University. On the contrary: Led by a dynamic principal, Beers is thriving and beginning to attract neighborhood families who call it an overlooked gem.
Even so, Thompson worries her daughter won’t be challenged in classrooms where many students have profound needs. Fewer than half of Beers’s students are proficient in reading and math, and poverty is so pervasive that every child is offered a free lunch.
“It kind of makes me feel like a cop-out to take my kid out of the school,” Thompson said. “I felt like hey — if all the parents really rallied around the school, the school would be great — and maybe it is great,” she said. “ Maybe I just need to get over my fears.”
Coming Friday: A millennial, born in Washington, ponders what opportunities are available for him in a changing city.