Every year hundreds of D.C. parents with children in traditional elementary schools yank them out of the system before they can reach their neighborhood middle schools, preferring to hunt for other educational options.
City records show that more sixth- and seventh-graders now enroll in charter schools — privately operated but publicly funded — than in traditional public schools. D.C. Public Schools holds a numerical edge in all other grades, from kindergarten through high school.
Middle schools pose such a challenge for DCPS that when Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ran for office in 2014, she pledged to strengthen them throughout the city, ensuring that every campus in the system offered high-powered academics, clubs and athletics.
She called it “Alice Deal for All” — a slogan referring to the city’s most sought-after traditional middle school.
Alice Deal Middle, with more than 1,470 students in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Northwest Washington, continues to have a long waiting list and is at capacity. But two years after Bowser took office, there are few signs that demand for other DCPS middle schools is rising.
“If you are not in an affluent neighborhood, where you have fabulous DCPS elementary schools that feed into Deal, you are really left with slim picking,” said Selma Patillo-Simms. Her son, Grant-Austin Simms, is an eighth-grader at District of Columbia International, a charter school. His assigned DCPS secondary school was Columbia Heights Education Campus, an option Patillo-Simms said she did not want because of its performance on standardized exams.
A Washington Post analysis of enrollment data shows that in fall 2016, there were 2,310 sixth-graders in DCPS schools. But in the previous school year, the system had 3,097 fifth-graders. That suggests enrollment is shrinking 25 percent at the gateway to middle school.
In fall 2014, the enrollment decline in the transition from fifth to sixth grades was 21 percent.
Asked about these numbers, Bowser said her priority now is to ensure that families have a high-quality school option, whether charter or traditional.
The mayor said in an interview with The Post that she would never tell parents they have only one choice for an elementary, middle or high school.
“The promise was for families to have a quality school to choose what they wanted,” Bowser said. “It wasn’t to direct them to their neighborhood school.” Her statement appeared to be a shift from language she used during the campaign, when she authored a resolution asserting that the city needed to improve the “poor state” of DCPS middle schools because it caused many parents to enroll their children in charter, private or parochial schools.
Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris later said that the mayor stands by her Alice Deal for All promise, citing millions of dollars in proposed new spending for DCPS middle schools. But “that’s not to say people wouldn’t still choose public charters, which are also our schools,” Harris said.
Exactly how to lure families back to DCPS middle schools is a matter of debate.
Bowser said parents want modern buildings, and she highlights efforts to remodel all middle school buildings by 2020 as a major accomplishment. She has also pushed for more foreign languages, art and extracurricular activities in middle schools, and there are plans to add hockey, lacrosse, archery and computer science courses in the next school year.
But many parents say that what they want most are high-performing and academically challenging schools. They want schools where students are disciplined if they misbehave, and they want vibrant school communities that welcome and engage parents. Some said they did not even consider sending their children to their neighborhood DCPS middle schools.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who leads the Education Committee, said Bowser is not prioritizing funding for programs that may encourage families to stay, such as restorative justice initiatives that are designed to improve student behavior.
“There are differences between someone running for mayor and campaigning, and someone who has the job,” Grosso said. “But people should be held accountable for what they say.”
Experts say middle schools are a vexing problem across the country. Most states focus resources on improving academics before a student enters third grade, and on preparing students for college during high school.
But research shows that performance in middle school can strongly predict how students will fare in high school. Most middle school improvement efforts around the country have focused on the configuration of grade levels. Sometimes middle grades are attached to an elementary school. Sometimes they are attached to a high school. Many campuses offer just sixth through eighth grade.
“Most policymakers have no clue what middle schools should look like or be,” said Steven Mertens, an expert on middle grades at Illinois State University.
Strong academic programs and a proven record of high academic performance are the only factors that will ultimately attract families to choose a particular school, Mertens said.
“Extracurriculars are fine, but that’s not going to attract parents,” he said. “Parents are going to be looking at the academics first and extracurriculars second.”
Out of 29 DCPS schools that offer sixth grade, only Deal and Oyster-Adams Bilingual had more than half of those sixth-graders meeting academic standards in math and reading last school year. Testing data show 23 percent of DCPS sixth-graders met math standards last year and 26 percent met reading standards.
City officials say they are encouraged that DCPS last fall enrolled its largest sixth-grade class in five years, with 2,310 students. But the system continues to lose hundreds of families before reaching middle school. Sometimes the system also loses students after fourth grade because many charter middle schools start at fifth grade.
The enrollment slippage at the transition to sixth grade is huge for some DCPS schools. Kramer Middle School in Anacostia was supposed to receive 238 students last fall from its feeder elementary schools. It got 61.
Columbia Heights Education Campus should have drawn 242 students from its feeder schools. It got 89.
Some of those students might have enrolled in other DCPS schools, but data shows that many families are choosing charter schools instead. About 54 percent of the city’s public school sixth-graders enrolled in charters this school year. That’s a major increase over 10 years. In 2007, charter schools enrolled 30 percent of the city’s sixth-graders.
In the interview with The Post this month, Bowser urged patience. She said Alice Deal for All was not a “24-month promise.” She said it will take time for the new programs at middle schools to lure families to stay in the traditional DCPS system.
“People said the same thing about our elementary schools a few years ago,” she said, “and now we have seen a dramatic turnaround in public confidence in those schools.”
Asked when she expects to see that same level of trust in middle schools, Bowser said, “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can tell you that our commitment will be steady and robust.”
Cassandra Bland, 35, a mother of two, does not have much confidence in her neighborhood middle school. She plans to enroll her son Kaleb in a charter school next year.
For sixth grade, Kaleb’s neighborhood school would be Cardozo Education Campus, just north of the U Street corridor.
The city recently spent $130 million to renovate Cardozo. The campus features skylights, broad corridors and an expansive atrium. Middle grades are on the third floor, separate from high school students.
But Bland said she has chosen for her son Chavez Prep Middle, a charter school three blocks from her house. Some of her relatives have children at the school and gave her good reviews.
She visited Chavez Prep and saw an academic program that she thinks caters to student needs. Her son struggles in math, so she was impressed by the after-school math tutoring options at the school. She wants clubs and other extracurricular activities that focus on arts and science. Chavez offers those.
Although Cardozo has many educational offerings, Bland said she didn’t consider that school. She didn’t even tour the building. Bland grew up in the District and said the school does not have a good reputation.
“Cardozo is not my first choice, even though the principal at my son’s elementary school and others said it has changed,” she said.
Virtually none of Cardozo’s seventh-graders met reading standards on city tests. About 7 percent met math standards. But scores at Chavez are also low, with 14 percent of seventh-graders meeting reading standards and 5 percent meeting math expectations.
“That really didn’t make a difference at all because the test scores for all of the schools were really low,” Bland said. “I went by what they were offering for the math and the extracurricular activities.”
Education officials acknowledge that changing perceptions are one of their greatest challenges. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who was once a middle school teacher, said that some schools are improving but that families do not know that because they are reluctant to check them out.
“I think people are used to what may have been true 10 years ago,” Wilson said. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure there are talented leaders in those schools, so when parents go into those schools, they will be impressed.”
Ayanna Smith’s daughter Raven is a second-grader at Anne Beers Elementary School in the Hillcrest neighborhood in Southeast. Smith, 44, is already thinking about middle school.
Sousa Middle, the neighborhood school, is not an option Smith is considering. Most parents she knows don’t send their kids there. Many choose Jefferson Middle in the Southwest Waterfront area instead.
Smith compared the hunt for a school to shopping for a gym. “If you hear people say negative things about it, you’re not even going to look into it any further,” she said.
At a middle school, Smith said, she wants the same kind of close-knit community that she and other parents have found at Beers. Parents and teachers know each other and rely on one another throughout the year. They treat one another like family. During teacher appreciation week this month, Smith and her husband, Tim, along with 10 other parents, gathered in the teacher’s lounge to blend tropical and berry smoothies for the school’s staff.
Smith and other parents said they fear they will lose that closeness once their children reach middle school.
But Smith isn’t giving up on DCPS. She and others are lobbying the school system to open a middle school magnet program that will focus on science, technology and math. They met with Wilson and his staff this spring and expect another meeting in late May.
“I feel very hopeful in a way that I haven’t been in the past,” she said.