Seventh-graders Eliana Rosenthal, left, and Lucy Levenson play Scrabble in a club at Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest Washington on Dec. 15. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

When the bell rings at 3:15 p.m., students at Alice Deal Middle School all have somewhere they can go. If it’s Monday, it might be African drumming or calligraphy club. Tuesday means ultimate Frisbee, meditation or Science Olympiad; and Wednesday, there’s fencing, fantasy football or Model U.N. On Friday, one club closes out the week doing yo-yo tricks in the main hallway.

Students can choose from about 70 after-school clubs four days a week at the District’s largest middle school.

“The idea is to build a culture at the school where everyone can find something they are interested in,” Principal James Albright said.

The abundance of extra­curricular offerings adds to the allure of the District’s most-sought-after middle school. With more than 1,300 students, Deal enrolls nearly a fifth of the D.C. school system’s middle-school-aged students at its Upper Northwest campus.

Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D) has committed to “transforming” the city’s middle schools and creating more high-quality options for families, many of whom leave the public schools — or the city entirely — in search of better educational offerings, often as their children enter middle school. Bowser campaigned on a slogan of “Alice Deal for All,” saying she would work to bring the same kind of academic programs and extracurricular activities to schools throughout the city.

In June, Alice Deal Middle School’s Sydney Forman helped Kelly Miller Middle School’s Idris Rajah adjust his microscope during a face-to-face forensic science lab at Deal. On the right is Kelly Miller’s Damon Mance. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

But as the school system works to attract students back to neighborhood schools after decades of declining enrollment, it struggles with a fundamental problem: How can it offer equitable programming across the city when enrollments are so unbalanced?

Deal has grown by more than 400 students in the past five years and is preparing to expand into a new wing with 15 extra classrooms after winter break. The school system’s students who don’t go to Deal are enrolled in about 30 other middle schools or “education campuses” for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The second-largest middle school is less than half the size of Deal, and some education campuses have fewer than 100 students in the middle grades.

“When you have a broader base, you can offer a lot more,” Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told a group of high school students this fall.

Putting similar programs in smaller schools drives up per-pupil costs. This year, the District spent $8 million to hire more than 80 teachers in the middle grades for newly required classes meant to ensure that schools have a base line of art, music, social studies and physical education.

Henderson also put in an extra $5 million for what she has called a “fun fund” to help schools promote non­academic activities. All 111 of the system’s schools received a grant of $100 per student, or a minimum of $10,000, to promote student satisfaction.

Henderson told the student group that many school leaders haven’t been thinking about fun because they have been so focused on academics in a city that’s under the microscope for school improvement.

Abdullah Zaki, principal at Kelly Miller Middle School, said he was all work and no play when he took over the job five years ago. “I’m just a stick in the mud,” he said.

“The idea is to build a culture at the school where everyone can find something they are interested in,” says James Albright, principal at Alice Deal Middle School. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

After a few years of “books, books, books, numbers, numbers, numbers,” Zaki is seeing results in test scores, and the Northeast school’s enrollment is climbing. Now, he said, he feels as if there’s room for something beyond academics. He gave the okay for students to organize a fall dance this year for the first time since he became principal.

And he said clubs are playing an increasingly important role at Kelly Miller. The school offers a wide range of activities — including spoken word, future engineers, school magazine, crochet, woodworking and fashion design — that are built into the regular school day, during an “X-block.” Everyone participates, and teachers can engage students through their interests and talents.

The grants are helping to support that effort, he said.

Rose L. Hardy Middle School used some of its “fun fund” money to pay for an after-school newspaper club and to buy an industrial mobile cooking cart that can be used for classes and clubs. Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in Ward 1, which serves grades six through 12, used the funds to offer cooking and swimming clubs. It hopes to restart its band, which was discontinued two years ago for financial reasons, said Principal Tanya S. Roane. Noyes Education Campus planned to use the money to support track and field, a school newspaper and home economics.

Variety matters when it comes to middle-school clubs and activities, said Jen Rinehart, vice president for research and policy at the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group. By this age, students have opinions about what they want to do. Middle school is a time that students are at risk of starting to disengage from school, and clubs are an important way to make them feel connected, she said.

About 45 percent of D.C. parents with middle-school-aged students say their children are enrolled in an after-school program, according to a survey published by the Afterschool Alliance.

D.C. schools partner with more than 150 community organizations that provide extended learning, including after-hours and summer programs for students. But the survey still showed unmet needs. For students not participating in the programs, more than 70 percent of their parents said they would enroll them if there was a program available. “The demand in the District is huge,” Rinehart said.

At Deal, teachers and students suggest ideas for programming, and clubs come and go based on student interest, Albright said.

There are clubs for bocce ball, Spanish theater, filmmaking, creative writing and board games. The school also has more than a dozen sports teams and something called Period 8, which is an optional after-school enrichment course in subjects such as forensic science, mapmaking and the science of happiness.

When Lacey Maddrey was hired two years ago as the school’s sixth-grade social worker, she brought a portable turntable to school and began a vinyl club.

She wasn’t sure it would take off. But on the first day, five students showed up, she said. Now as many as 15 students come on Wednesdays, crowding into her small office to listen to records.

In between songs, she said, students sometimes talk about how middle school is going, how they feel about their teachers or what’s happening with their friends or at home.

“They can explore their friendships and autonomy while learning about new songs and feeling punk-rocky cool,” she said.

Maddrey came from MacFarland Middle School, which had fewer than 200 students and a similarly small number of activities. The Northwest school closed in 2013, leaving no stand-alone middle schools in Ward 4.

Christopher Alexander, a Ward 4 father of two, said he is concerned that the education campuses do not have enough students to support a variety of activities after school. The database developer is starting a Saturday academy to introduce children to science and technology topics and hopes to attract a broader base of students.

“I want Ward 4 kids and kids across the city to have all the same kinds of options available at Deal or at schools in the suburbs,” he said.

Parents in Ward 4 are working to reopen MacFarland as a rejuvenated school with well-rounded programs. Bowser helped secure funding to draft the plans.

While many parents have advocated the reopening of more stand-alone middle schools, Mary Ann Stinson, principal at Truesdell Education Campus, cautioned that bigger is not always better.

Her school does not have every club that she would like to offer, specifically robotics and a debate team, but she has a “full complement of sports, choir and band,” she said. And there other benefits at a smaller school where older children and younger siblings are together and teachers and administrators get to know their families very well, she said.

At Deal, on the Monday before winter vacation, some clubs were already on hiatus. Just one drummer showed up to African drumming, but a group of young chefs headed over to the nearby Whole Foods for cooking club.

In the cafeteria, a cheerleading team practiced human pyramids. Nearby, a few pairs of Scrabble players snacked on pretzels and studied their tiles.

In a third-floor classroom, eight girls were watching a TED Talk about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for a club called “Girl Up,” which was organized to raise awareness about human rights.

And in a first-floor classroom, the Boys Discussion Only Group — or BDOG — was attended by a half-dozen sixth-graders who like to eat spicy fries, talk about sports and “act dang crazy sometimes,” according to 12-year-old Davon Tong.

“It’s fun,” he said.