The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does every D.C. child have a fair shot at attending an elite high school? The city is trying.

School Without Walls has its own entrance exam. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The D.C. public school system is scaling back admissions requirements for the city’s selective public high schools, an effort to open elite classrooms to students who live in every corner of the city.

The changes aim to address a problem vexing application public schools throughout the nation: How do campuses remain selective while also creating classrooms that reflect the demographics of the cities they serve?

In New York, the mayor proposed an overhaul of the admissions policy governing the city’s eight elite high schools only to be met with a lawsuit and protests. The plan is on hold.

In Boston, the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights have urged the city to change its admissions requirements to three selective high schools where black student enrollment does not reflect the city’s diversity.

And in the District, Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in October that he would overhaul application requirements for the city’s eight selective high schools, eliminating most testing requirements and reducing the minimum grade-point average from middle school necessary to gain entrance. Middle school attendance records will not be taken into account.

Students are guaranteed a slot at standard high schools in the traditional public system, but they have to apply to selective high schools. The idea is to create more academically rigorous campuses and schools that offer specialized courses.

In the District, nearly 4,000 of the city’s 20,000 public high school students attend an application campus.

“We asked our high school principals, who led our charge, how they can ensure there is equitable access and how we can remove our barriers,” Ferebee said.

The chancellor’s announcement comes just a year after the District mandated that students wanting to attend most of the city’s application high schools had to pass a national standardized test administered to D.C. middle-schoolers.

But the implications of that requirement swiftly became evident. So few D.C. students, especially teenagers from low-income families, passed the test that city leaders acknowledged the requirement was largely ignored at most application high schools.

In Wards 7 and 8 — the poorest swath of the city — only 45 students attending neighborhood middle schools passed both the English and math portions of the standardized exam, according to city data. At one middle school, three students passed. At another, four did.

Among members of the 2017-2018 freshman class at Phelps ACE High School, an engineering-focused application campus, only two students passed the math portion of their standardized exam in middle school, according to data obtained through a public information request.

The school system said the testing requirement was haphazardly and inconsistently implemented, and officials decided to eliminate the requirement to ensure all students understand they have a shot at attending.

One campus, School Without Walls, will continue to have a school-specific admissions exam and require students to have a minimum grade-point average from middle school.

“However the selection is made, and whatever the criteria is, it’s useful for policymakers to know what is going on here,” said Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who has studied selective high schools throughout the country. “Why are these kids here, and those not? We know what we’re arguing about.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced legislation — which has not been voted on — that would expand access to the city’s selective high schools.

Research by Reeves opens a window into why some school leaders think expanding access is critical. In a Brookings report, Reeves found that many selective high schools in the nation’s big urban school systems have a student body disproportionately made up of white students.

He determined that Chicago’s selective high schools — which reserve seats for students whose families are in different socioeconomic brackets — are more reflective of that city’s public school demographics than elite schools in most cities.

In the District, the Brookings study found that campuses do not reflect the socioeconomics of the overall student population.

The study mirrors results of an examination by the Office of the D.C. Auditor. It found a low level of elite high school enrollment by children who attended neighborhood middle schools where most students come from low-income families.

Conversely, children from low-income families who made it into application high schools usually had attended middle schools outside their neighborhood.

At Benjamin Banneker Academic High — one of the city’s selective schools — 20 percent of students are considered at risk, meaning they are homeless or receive welfare or food stamps. Citywide, nearly half of public schools students are considered at risk.

Two schools, Banneker and School Without Walls, have no students requiring federally mandated special-education services, the auditor’s office found. That compares with 17 percent of students in the school system overall having documented special-ed needs.

D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said the city must make the admissions process fair to ensure that all students have an opportunity to get a seat at these schools. The city has opened additional application schools, and Patterson said these campuses should not exclude special-ed students.

“When you see schools like Walls and Banneker with zero students with disabilities — that does raise some concerns,” Patterson said.

This fall, the traditional public school system opened two campuses that let students graduate with a high school diploma and a two-year associate degree.

The chancellor said all selective campuses must post their admissions requirements.

McKinley Technology High, for example, will require prospective students to complete an essay, provide teacher recommendations and have an interview on campus. The school also recommends that students have a middle school grade-point average of at least 3.0, although that is not required.

Ferebee said the school system is working to expand access to all of the city’s application schools, but the challenges at School Without Walls stand apart because it is the only campus with its own entrance exam.

Some residents fear that having an entrance exam at School Without Walls will prevent the campus from becoming more racially and socioeconomically diverse. The Walls student body is 43 percent white — the largest share at any public high school in the District. Twelve percent of the students are considered at risk.

Since the 2014-2015 academic year, the 600-student campus has enrolled an average of 16 additional white students each year and enrolled 16 fewer black students, according to city data. That has resulted in a 37 percent increase of white students during that time, and a 35 percent decrease in black students.

The school system said that since 2015, the number of students applying from Ward 3, the wealthiest corner of the city, has jumped nearly 50 percent. And applications from Ward 6, another area with wealthy families, have increased by 20 percent.

To encourage black students from low-income families to attend Walls, the District for the first time wants to add an admissions testing site in the poorest sectors of the city. But some suspect that the test is the problem and allowing students to take it closer to home won’t solve anything.

Sandra Moscoso-Mills, president of School Without Walls’ Home and School Association, a parent organization, has a son at Walls and an eighth-grade daughter who is applying. She fears that her daughter’s public middle school has not prepared the girl to pass the math portion of the Walls entrance exam, so she has encouraged her daughter to do online math courses.

But Moscoso-Mills said if children don’t have a parent pushing or helping them take an online course, they may struggle to pass the entrance exam.

“She has the opportunity to compete,” Moscoso-Mills said. “If she doesn’t get the content, then she won’t compete on the test.”

Eboni-Rose Thompson — chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, an advocacy group in a part of the city with a high concentration of poverty — said that without robust academic offerings in middle schools, children in her ward won’t be able to compete at Banneker and Walls, the city’s top high schools. And, she said, they won’t be prepared to attend their neighborhood high schools either.

“We have celebrated a lot of success around elementary schools, we have celebrated and opened new high schools,” Thompson said. “Middle school seems to be a black box that they haven’t cracked yet.”

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