Dupont Circle’s Ross Elementary has undergone a transformation in recent years, morphing from a school that neighbors dismissed into one so highly sought-after that there is a near-hopeless waiting list for pre-kindergarten classes.

But as much as parents love Ross, a brick building tucked amid some of the District’s priciest real estate, many choose to pull their children out of the school before they graduate. Ross’s fifth-grade class last year had just eight students. Of last year’s 19 Ross fourth-graders, just nine stuck around to finish there.

Most of the students who have left Ross have landed in D.C. public charter schools. A few have gone to private schools, a few to the suburbs. Many parents say they remove their children in search of the same elusive thing: a path to a decent middle school.

By next year, city statistics show, many of the remaining nine will have scattered, too. In the past three years, just one Ross fifth-grader out of 47 went on to attend the assigned public middle school, which many parents consider substandard.

The attrition embodies a looming challenge for the District’s school system and its next mayor: How can officials overhaul the city’s long-struggling middle schools to stop the exodus? It’s a test that comes as the first cohort of children to grow up with high-profile D.C. education reforms, including universal pre-kindergarten and mayoral control of the schools, reaches the end of elementary school and a decision about what comes next.

“A lot of us, we feel like we don’t have a choice but to leave Ross prematurely,” said Jennifer Touchette, president of the PTA and mother of a fourth-grader at Ross. She, too, has entered the charter lottery and applied to a private school for next year. “All we want is a viable middle-school option.”

Ross families are far from alone. After the 2011-12 school year, 11 percent of the system’s fourth-graders did not continue on to fifth grade in a traditional D.C. public school, according to city data. From fifth grade to sixth grade — the city’s usual transition point from elementary to middle school — the system’s enrollment that same year plummeted by 24 percent.

Often, those leaving D.C. schools are those with the most educated and engaged parents, who worry that the city’s middle schools won’t prepare their children for the rigors of high school and beyond. They cite poor academic results, concerns about safety, discipline and culture, and a lack of course variety and extracurricular activities that students need to stay engaged and to prepare for high school.

There also are tensions regarding race and class. District elementary schools have become increasingly diverse as the city has gentrified, but poor and African American students make up the majority of all but one of the city’s stand-alone middle schools.

School system officials say that they have quietly made strides in improving the middle grades and that middle-school enrollment is up 12 percent this year over last. Middle-school students have made some of the city’s largest math and reading gains in recent years, according to city test results, and strong principals and teachers are leading a culture change in some long-troubled schools.

“We know reputations take time to change,” said Melissa Salmanowitz, a D.C. schools spokeswoman. “But we also know what is actually happening in our middle schools is good and getting better. Parents should come see what is happening for themselves and talk to us about what they want in our middle schools. It’s probably similar to what we want for all our students.”

A new Washington Post poll suggests that the District’s system faces a particularly difficult task in rehabilitating perceptions about its middle schools.

Few parents would chose a DCPS middle school

Only about one-quarter of city residents say they would choose to send their child to a D.C. Public Schools middle school. Among parents who send their children to a D.C. public school, 45 percent would prefer to send a young child to a DCPS elementary school, but only 31 percent would send a child to a DCPS middle school. Thirty percent would seek a charter middle school for their child, while the rest say they would look to private schools or leave the city.

Anxiety and frustration about the state of city middle schools has bled into the mayoral race. While Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) boasts that the city has made some of the nation’s greatest gains on math and reading tests, some parents say the District has failed to offer a vision for improving middle schools.

“If a politician’s every third word isn’t middle schools, I tune them out,” said Tim Krepp, who has two children at Brent Elementary School on Capitol Hill, including a fourth-grader who is seeking a charter-school spot for next year. “There’s a lot of things I expect them to take care of, but I need them to take care of middle schools, and soon.”

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said middle schools across the city are improving, even if their reputations are slow to change. “Sometimes the reality does not jive with the emotion,” he said. “Sometimes the emotion can overwhelm what the numbers really are and [how] things are really looking.”

Wide disparities

The call for stronger D.C. middle schools has simmered for years, but it has grown louder recently, in part because the city has embarked on an effort to overhaul school boundaries for the first time in decades.

At the same time, Gray’s challengers in the mayoral contest have seized on middle schools as a possible weak spot for the incumbent, and D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) — who is exploring a run for mayor — has used his perch as chairman of the council’s new Education Committee to press for improvement.

“I’ve been surprised at the level of inequality in school programming in our middle schools,” Catania said at a recent hearing. “It is shocking.”

Alice Deal Middle School offers the kind of experience that many parents say they want for their children, and it draws 78 percent of the students who live within its Northwest Washington attendance zone — plus hundreds more who travel across town

That’s partly because Deal has an International Baccalaureate curriculum that includes year-long courses in science and social studies at each grade level; advanced math classes and three foreign languages, including Mandarin Chinese; at least 14 sports, including lacrosse, swimming and ultimate frisbee; and dozens of after-school activities, including African drumming, knitting club and Brazilian jujitsu. This year, Deal also began offering “Period 8,” optional after-school enrichment courses taught partly online in subjects such as forensic science and mapmaking.

Nearly nine in 10 Deal students are proficient in math, according to city tests, and 83 percent are proficient in reading.

By contrast, Hart Middle School in Southeast draws 31 percent of the students from within its attendance boundaries. There are no foreign language classes for Hart middle-schoolers. Social studies is a semester-long elective for seventh- and eighth-graders. After-school sports and activities are far more limited, and there is no Period 8.

Fewer than one-third of Hart students are proficient in math and reading.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson has said that such disparities are unacceptable, and she has promised that addressing them will be a top priority in her budget for the next school year.

Henderson also has acknowledged that the system’s approach to middle school — including a 2008 decision by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to establish more pre-school through eighth grade “education campuses” — has largely failed to attract the growing number of young families who want to stay in the city. And she has said repeatedly that she welcomes the scrutiny and the call for change.

“I actually take that as an indication of our success,” she told a group of middle school leaders at a recent budget meeting. “For a long time, people didn’t care enough about D.C. Public Schools to demand anything.”

Henderson also has drawn criticism for saying that in some cases in which the school system has failed to establish strong middle schools, it might make sense to funnel students into charter middle schools. Charter schools have grown quickly in recent years and enroll 44 percent of the city’s public school students.

“Parents want good options,” she said, “so we should figure out how to get as many good options in front of families as possible.”

Many parents say the city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in rebuilding high schools, many of which are severely underenrolled. To fix middle schools, they say, the District must be just as willing to invest in building academic programs that parents value.

But school funding is based on enrollment, so principals of unpopular schools often don’t have money to build new programs. That’s backwards, said Joe Weedon, whose two children attend Maury Elementary School on Capitol Hill.

“DCPS has been saying, when you come, we will build it,” Weedon said. “Parents aren’t going to come unless it’s built before we are there. We want to see investments and programs in place.”

Promises about the future aren’t enough for plenty of parents who face choices about middle school now, including those from Ross. Students at the school, which is one of the system’s smallest and has fewer than 300 children, are supposed to go on to Cardozo Education Campus in Columbia Heights.

While Cardozo is in the midst of a turnaround effort, it is known for rough behavior, poor test scores and a dearth of opportunities for advanced students. It was a high school until fall 2013, when it added students in sixth grade through eighth grade from a nearby middle school that closed because of low enrollment. Only 38 percent of Cardozo high-schoolers graduate within four years.

“I am not going to send my kid to a school where there’s high-schoolers there,” said Gabriella Savio, a former Ross parent whose two boys are now at BASIS, a downtown charter school. “It’s not the right environment. It’s not what I want for my kids.”

BASIS, like many charter middle schools, starts at fifth grade, luring top students away from the city’s traditional elementary schools before they graduate to middle school.

Savio acknowledged that demographics matter, too, a charged and often-unspoken element of school choice.

Cardozo is 68 percent black, 30 percent Latino and 1 percent white. Enough students are poor that the whole school qualifies for free lunches. Hardy Middle School in Georgetown — another school Savio considered but rejected — serves a mostly out-of-boundary population that is primarily black and 56 percent poor.

“I need diversity. I need a nice mix of people,” Savio said. “I don’t want my child to be the only white child in a classroom full of all African Americans.”

Other parents say they have heard of improvements at middle schools, but they aren’t willing to risk their children’s education on schools that have not proved themselves over the long term.

Candace and Greg Rhett live east of the Anacostia River in a neighborhood zoned for Kelly Miller Middle, a long-struggling school that has improved dramatically during the past three years under the leadership of Principal Abdullah Zaki.

But D.C. principals come and go quickly, and there is no assurance that Kelly Miller will continue its upward trajectory, the Rhetts said. They are entering the lottery for charter schools and considering private schools for their fourth-grade daughter.

“My husband and I will not offer our child up as an experiment because they say things are getting better,” Candace Rhett said. “There is no sense of certainty, and I think parents want certainty.”

Missed opportunities?

Not every family leaves the system’s middle schools, and many of those who stay are happy with their choice.

Capitol Hill mother Heather Schoell said she entered the lottery for charter schools — and got her daughter into one well-regarded school — before deciding to send her to the neighborhood middle school, Eliot-Hine.

Her initial concerns about safety and discipline were unfounded, she said.

“We have been really happy with Eliot-Hine!” Schoell wrote in an e-mail. “I feel like we wasted a lot of time and effort fretting for a year on the pros and cons of the schools we considered. We could’ve focused that energy on the school!”

The District is hardly the only jurisdiction that struggles with middle school, a time when students and their raging hormones often test adults.

“We do it wrong more than any other grade level,” said Mike Muir, president of the Association of Middle Level Education, a national organization based in Ohio. He attributed the trouble to schools’ failure to meet the very particular needs of young adolescents, including the need to move, to interact with each other and to learn in ways that connect academics to the real world.

But many parents argue that the District has missed opportunities to strengthen its middle schools.

Four years ago, the school system adopted a plan, largely developed by parents, to improve Eliot-Hine and other Ward 6 middle schools. School system officials say they have invested heavily to implement the plan, but parents say the system has not kept up with the promised pace of change.

In Ward 5, officials planned to build two middle schools in response to complaints that K-8 schools did not provide enough academic and extracurricular offerings. But the first school, McKinley Middle, was severely underenrolled when it opened in fall 2013. The second school was supposed to open in Brookland this coming fall, but officials delayed the opening until 2015 in part because of concerns that it hadn’t been advertised widely enough to recruit a full student body.

In June, officials closed MacFarland, the system’s only stand-alone middle school in Ward 4. Parents of young students at Powell Elementary, a thriving school around the corner from MacFarland, hope the city will eventually reverse that decision.

Martha Holley-Miers, mother of a Powell pre-kindergartner, said she worries that without strong middle schools, the school system won’t reap the benefit of the energy people have poured into improving elementary schools.

“It’s unrealistic for us to think we can keep Ward 4 families engaged in the traditional public school system if there aren’t reasonable opportunities for high-quality middle and high schools in our neighborhood,” she said.

Peyton M. Craighill and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.