D.C. lawmakers on Tuesday rejected an effort to provide a reprieve to hundreds of students who applied to one of the city’s most selective public high schools but were disqualified because of a mistake by city officials.
The unsuccessful legislation by D.C. Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) came 10 days after city officials acknowledged they scuttled a plan to diversify the applicant pool at School Without Walls High School because they failed to properly announce new admission requirements.
The bill would have allowed the school to consider admitting more than 200 students who may have applied believing the more flexible requirements were in place. It prompted an unusually bitter debate among city lawmakers and failed on a 6-6 vote.
Walls had attempted to relax a new requirement that only middle schoolers who pass a national standardized exam given to all D.C. eighth-graders are eligible to take the school’s entrance test.
A pilot program quietly rolled out last fall that would have allowed students who ranked in the top 15 of their classes to apply, even if they did not pass the standardized exam.
But the school system canceled that program because the principal did not advertise the changes on the school lottery website and materials. The city said it would introduce the program properly next year.
The emergency legislation would have restored eligibility for eighth-graders who applied this year despite not passing the national exam.
“The rug was slipped out from under them, and there are only 14 people in this city that can fix this,” said White, referring to the 13-member council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, faulted Walls Principal Richard Trogisch for failing to communicate the new admissions requirements. He said the legislation would have given students who learned about the new rules an unfair advantage over the students who did not.
“It’s unfortunate for the families that relied on him,” Grosso said. “But I think it’s equally unfortunate for the families that didn’t even get to hear that the rules changed, or the families that followed the rules that were posted online.”
Nine votes are needed to pass emergency legislation. In addition to Allen and White, council members Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) voted for the bill. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Grosso voted against it. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) was absent.
In an interview after the vote, Allen said there was nothing else lawmakers could do for the students shut out of a school because of errors made by adults. “Unfortunately, the bureaucracy wins,” he said. “As we are trying to make sure that all of our schools are as reflective of the city as we can, it was a big swing and a miss.”
Trogisch said he visited schools across the city to let parents know that students who were at the top of their class could apply.
“It would allow more students to test,” he said. “We want to maintain our diversity.”
Walls, a 600-student school in Foggy Bottom, educates the lowest percentage of at-risk students of any the District’s traditional public high schools. At-risk students are defined as those whose families are homeless or receive food stamps or public financial support, or those who are a year or more behind academically.
Twelve percent of students at Walls are considered at-risk vs. 46 percent in public high schools citywide, according to city data.
Trogisch’s pilot program would have enabled Walls to consider applicants from every middle school in the city. At Kramer Middle School in Southeast Washington, for example, zero students passed both the English and math portions of the standardized exam, according to Allen. At other schools, just 1 percent of students currently qualify to take the Walls admission test.
The city also raised the test score requirements this year for applying to Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School — a selective high school in Northeast Washington.
Because Phelps did not try to expand admission requirements to include top-ranking middle school students, the emergency legislation did not apply to it.
Council members said they wanted to start conversations about whether tying admissions to selective schools to standardized test scores is shutting out low-income students, who disproportionately score lower on the national exam. Grosso said he’ll hold a public hearing in the fall on how best to draw high-achieving students from across the city.
Also Tuesday, Gray dropped his effort to stop Bowser from redirecting money away from the renovation of Fort Dupont Ice Arena and using it for school repairs.
Gray withdrew legislation that would have forced a council vote on the issue after the city and the Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena reached an agreement for the city to fund most of the renovation. The council would have to approve the spending, and the group must raise private funds for the effort, as well.
Gray questioned the fundraising conditions and a growing price tag for the project, saying he feared further delays if supporters of the ice rink are were unable to raise $3 million by next February and an additional $2 million before the project’s completion.
The council also gave final approval to legislation authorizing the city to grant a sole-source contract to Greece-based Intralot to operate mobile and online services as part of the legalization of sports betting.
Lawmakers voted 8 to 4, with Robert White, Grosso, Silverman and Nadeau voting no.
This story has been updated with a quote from Walls Principal Richard Trogisch.