D.C. Ward 6 parents seek new options for middle school

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; B02

Capitol Hill parents, who have played a key role in the revival of elementary schools in Ward 6, are asking Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for a major expansion of middle school choices in the area so that their children can continue in D.C. public schools.

Elementary schools on the Hill, which have seen an influx of young families in recent years, feed into three middle schools: Stuart-Hobson, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson.

Two of the three, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, have reading and math proficiency rates at or below 50 percent. Although Stuart-Hobson has been more successful -- reading and math proficiency was at 75 percent last year -- parents say the 1927-vintage building is in poor condition and needs major renovations.

As a result, many neighborhood families have looked to nearby public charter schools, such as Two Rivers and Friendship, or entered the lottery for seats at public middle schools such as Deal in Tenleytown or Hardy in Georgetown.

"We want to expand choices for parents," said Suzanne Wells, a parent at Tyler Elementary and leader of the Capitol Hill Public School Parent Organization, a coalition of PTA members from schools in the area.

At the urging of D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is no relation to Suzanne Wells, the group has developed a three-tiered proposal, unveiled Wednesday night during a meeting at Stuart-Hobson.

A key component is Eliot-Hine's growth into a middle school modeled after Deal, with an enrollment of 850 -- it currently has about 300 students -- and an expansion of academic offerings to include an International Baccalaureate program and Spanish-immersion classes for students coming from a similar program at Tyler.

Parents are also proposing that two elementary schools, Brent and Miner, be expanded through the eighth grade to incorporate relatively small middle schools.

Brent would also add an IB program while expanding its museum magnet program with the Smithsonian Institution. Miner would extend its popular Reggio Emilia program through the eighth grade.

Stuart-Hobson would become a midsize middle school, with a second story built on top of a renovated gymnasium to allow expanded music and art programs. Fifth-grade classes at the school would move to Watkins Elementary.

The group is also calling for expansion of Montessori programs on the Hill, currently at Watkins, which have grown hugely popular, with more than 300 applications for 26 openings this year.

The parents' initiative comes at a time of major change in the face of education in Ward 6. A $76 million reconstruction and academic relaunch of Eastern Senior High School is underway. Details of the program are not settled, but the District has proposed converting the school into specialized "academies" focused on health sciences and pre-law studies and possibly an IB program.

Wells and other District officials see a re-imagined Eastern as the linchpin of a plan to attract and retain more middle- and upper-middle-class families.

The school, which has been under federal mandate to overhaul its academic program because of consistently poor performance, has been closed to new students for the past two years.

Initial plans called for admitting ninth-graders in the fall, when the new building is scheduled to be ready, but Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced Wednesday that they have pushed the relaunch back to 2011 to give the school's new leadership -- which has not been selected -- a year to plan.

Wells and William Wilhoyte, the instructional superintendent for District middle schools, attended the meeting with parents, and they were enthusiastic about the ideas. But they said the ultimate decision belonged to Rhee. They said the chancellor has her own ideas about middle schools in Ward 6, but they did not elaborate. Rhee said in an e-mail Wednesday night that she could not comment because she had not seen the plan.

There are numerous potential obstacles to the parents' proposal. It calls for moving programs that currently have some of their space at Eliot-Hine, including the Youth Engagement Academy for students identified as at risk of dropping out. Miner's expansion would require moving into its adjacent former building, now earmarked for use by D.C. police.

But Wells and Wilhoyte urged parents to engage Rhee.

"I think we need to challenge Chancellor Rhee and say, 'What are you thinking?' " Wells said.

Wells also credited parents with driving what he called "an extraordinary renaissance at the elementary school level" in Ward 6. "There's nowhere I know of in any urban area of America where this many schools have become schools of choice," he said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company