November 13, 2013

Some D.C. parents are apoplectic because Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration has begun the process of redefining boundaries used to assign students to traditional public schools. The effort comes way late in the education reform process — after dozens of schools have been shuttered and many others have undergone multimillion-dollar renovations.

Better late than never, right?

Besides, Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith appears to have developed a good process that includes the citizen-anchored D.C. Advisory Committee on Student Assignment. She will co-chair that panel with John Hill — a highly respected business leader who, as president of the public library board, helped to lead a renaissance of the city’s neighborhood libraries. Technical support is being provided by individuals such as Smith’s policy adviser, Claudia Lujan, who, in another incarnation, helped Capitol Hill parents advance their plan to revitalize D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) middle schools. Multiple portals — focus groups, small working committees and an online survey — have been established to facilitate additional public input. A report is expected in May.

Many parents of children who attend schools outside their neighborhoods worry that those students will be forced to leave. Their concern is understandable, though District officials have offered assurances that this won’t happen. But is spitball-throwing a fear-allaying exercise? Perhaps they really don’t want change. Many parents have learned how to exploit DCPS’s gerrymandered boundaries. Others have mastered the out-of-boundary lottery, which is de facto school busing.

The complainers have ignored an unvarnished truth: The current anachronistic system, the result of ill-conceived efforts to desegregate the city’s schools, is inequitable and injurious to thousands of children. It has stripped some neighborhoods — not just those that are poor — of vital socioeconomic resources.

Middle-class Ward 4 families, for example, have been encouraged to abandon their high schools for others, particularly Wilson High School in Ward 3. Its boundary tracks through Wards 1, 2, 4 and 6. That has meant persistent overcrowding at Wilson, as Ward 4 schools such as Roosevelt High School have gone underused. And since school budgets are based on enrollments, that has meant Wilson can offer academic programs that other schools, including some in Ward 4, cannot afford.

“The [entire] ecosystem is under great stress,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee; he has scheduled a hearing for Friday on the boundary review process. “Any conversation that does not address quality is going to miss the mark.”

Lujan said the aim is “fair and clear school-choice and student-assignment policies” that provide families with “clarity, predictability and access to high-quality school options at locations that make sense for them.” She said the process also is meant “to support and strengthen neighborhood schools.”

One stumbling block: The assignment committee appears intent on pursuing “cross-feeder patterns” that would steer some DCPS students directly into charters. Children who might attend specialized DCPS academic programs at the elementary level that are not offered in succeeding grade levels at a traditional public school could opt to enroll in a charter to continue their course of study.

Implementing such cross-feeder patterns would require council approval. Catania is not keen on the idea, asserting that DCPS ought to be able to provide programs across grade levels. Many parents agree and have been advocating just that.

These parents understand that quality schools are not the exclusive domain of any particular education sector or geographic area. Rather, they are created mostly by families who are fully invested in their children, unwilling to accept excuses and ready to do hard work in collaboration with innovative teachers and experienced principals who receive sufficient financial support.

There has been talk of creating a satellite middle-school campus for the highly successful Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. In Hillcrest, a middle-class community in Southeast, residents, supported by Catania, have been negotiating with Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to create an application-admission middle or high school. They are conducting a survey, pushing to receive comments from 2,500 residents citywide. “We are trying to develop programs that appeal to residents across the district; this survey will help us get there,” said Jeanne Contardo. She, her husband and their neighbors are determined to spark a rebirth of their neighborhood schools.

Many students in Wards 7 and 8 “are being forced to cross the river to attend a quality school. That is fundamentally unfair,” said Contardo, whose daughter attends Anne Beers Elementary. “We’d like to create a model and provide opportunities so they don’t have to. . . . In fact, we think people from the other side of the river will want to come here,”

Contardo said Hillcrest residents hope to open their new school in the fall 2015. “It’s crazy aggressive.”

But not impossible — especially if the boundary advisory committee and parents are unwaveringly dedicated to the vision of a high-quality, equitable traditional public school system serving all residents right where they live.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com