D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson speaks before the D.C. Council and the public about her reasons for proposing to close 20 schools at the Wilson Building on Nov. 15. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

As District parents and activists organize to oppose Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s proposal to close 20 city schools, a potentially larger and more divisive fight looms.

Henderson plans to overhaul D.C. school boundaries and feeder patterns for the first time since the 1970s. The move, which will come after Henderson finalizes the school-closure plan in January, is likely to limit access to some of the city’s most sought-
after and best-performing schools, including Alice Deal Middle and Woodrow Wilson High. And it could trigger a political brawl.

“School boundary and feeder pattern changes can be even more challenging than school consolidations,” Henderson told the D.C. Council at a hearing last week. “These discussions truly do pit one community against another.”

In any community, school boundary fights tend to carry undercurrents of race and class. Last year, for example, a decision to shift elementary boundary lines in Loudoun County sparked an outcry and lawsuits from parents of the 1,000 children who were moved. Washington is no different.

Many of the city’s best-
performing schools are clustered in affluent, majority-white neighborhoods in Upper Northwest Washington. For years, those schools have drawn diverse student bodies from wide swaths of the city, but now they are attracting more local families and have become increasingly overcrowded.

Changes to D.C. school attendance zones

All of the schools in Northwest’s Ward 3 are over capacity, with enrollment across the ward growing 23 percent in the past three years, according to staff for Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who has been pressing for boundary changes to ease overcrowding.

Cheh is even sponsoring a bill that would create a commission to study city demographics and recommend boundary changes to the mayor every 10 years. But the council would play no role in redrawing boundaries; nor does the city have an elected school board that would grapple with proposed changes.

Since 2007, the District’s school system has been under the direct control of the mayor. Henderson, appointed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to be schools chancellor, holds the power to determine school boundary lines.

Parents worry that Henderson will shrink the boundaries around popular Northwest schools. Such a decision could shut out poor and minority students from other parts of the city, and it could cause a firestorm among residents who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on homes with access to specific neighborhood schools.

The fiercest battle will almost certainly be over who has the right to attend Deal Middle and Wilson High, two of the city’s highest-performing and most diverse neighborhood secondary schools.

Deal’s enrollment has more than doubled since 2008 — to 1,165 this year — nearly 200 more than the school was designed to hold. Wilson has grown nearly 20 percent since 2008, and it, too, is over capacity. The city has spent about $200 million renovating both schools in recent years.

The intense demand for Deal and Wilson highlights a striking difference from the rest of the city, where charter schools are growing quickly and DCPS is proposing to close schools because of under-enrollment.

Under current rules, students have the right to attend Deal and Wilson if they live within the established attendance boundaries, which for Wilson extend across a huge swath of the city.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who represents many families who cross town to attend Wilson, said she opposes any plan that would “draw a line in our city down the middle of Rock Creek Park, to change the boundaries so that people who are east of the park don’t have access to schools that are west of the park.”

“We cannot draw that stark line,” Bowser said. “I think it has the potential to crack the city in half.”

Students also have the right to enroll at Deal and Wilson if they attend a “feeder” elementary school, which parents from all over the city often seek out because of that access. Now parents at some feeder schools fear the chancellor will cut them out, leaving them with less-attractive and lower-performing public schools.

Though city officials have tweaked boundaries over the years, this would be the first comprehensive change in decades.

“I think people would rather send their children to an overcrowded school that’s successful rather than go to a school with a lot of elbow room but without high achievement,” said Mark Pattison, a father at Shepherd Elementary east of Rock Creek Park, where parents are already organizing to protect their access to Deal and Wilson.

Shepherd is physically closest to Coolidge High, where about a third of the students are proficient in reading and math and three-quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty. Eighty-seven percent of Coolidge students are black and 12 percent are Hispanic.

At Wilson, by contrast, half as many students are living in poverty and about 60 percent are proficient in math and reading. About half of its students are black; white and Hispanic students each constitute about one-fifth of the population.

Parents who live firmly within Wilson’s boundaries also worry that changes will lead to a whiter and more affluent school, further segregating a system with few diverse schools.

“What I would like for my son is to have the opportunity to go to a high-quality diverse school,” said Ken Archer, a Georgetown father of a 4-year-old.

Archer is among several parents who are pushing the school system to confront overcrowding as part of the school closure and consolidation discussion. They propose moving Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a selective magnet school in Northwest, to Roosevelt High, one of the system’s under-enrolled high school campuses in Northwest.

Roosevelt could be renovated to provide an appropriate venue for an arts school that is centrally located near a Metro station, they argue, and Ellington’s current building could become a neighborhood high school, providing west-of-the-park seats that would be attractive to a wide range of families.

“The core of the idea is to be creative to generate lots of winners,” Wilson parent Matthew Frumin wrote in an e-mail. “Not to do something at someone’s expense but rather to create opportunities for lots of people to benefit.”

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) called the plan politically unrealistic last week, citing Ellington’s attachment to its current site. Henderson said her staff had not explored the option yet but is willing to do so.

The schools chancellor plans to begin community meetings about boundary and feeder-
pattern changes in early 2013, and she hopes to make final decisions by June. The changes would go into effect for the 2014-15 school year.

“I do not want to divide our city by drawing boundary lines that reinforce our city’s cultural divides,” Henderson told the council. “At the same time, I do want to ensure that no schools are overcrowded, and that we have students all across the city who are ready to attend the improved middle schools we will offer in their communities.”