D.C. Council Education Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) speaks during Friday’s hearing on school boundaries. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The state of the District’s long-struggling middle schools took center stage at a packed D.C. Council hearing Friday as school leaders discussed the city’s plans to overhaul school boundaries and feeder patterns for the first time in more than three decades.

It was the first citywide opportunity for the public to weigh in on the boundary-change effort, a politically charged and long-delayed process that could reshape city neighborhoods and limit access to some of the city’s most sought-after schools.

Many parents testified that the city won’t be able to keep its growing number of young families — and won’t fix the lopsidedness of city schools, which tend to be overcrowded in a few affluent neighborhoods and under-enrolled most everywhere else — unless it solves the middle-school problem.

Weak middle schools across much of the city create a stampede for a few desirable options in affluent Northwest, parents said, and end up pushing many families into charter schools, private schools or the suburbs as they seek a predictable K-12 path. It is middle schools that are causing attrition at many elementary schools and low enrollment at many high schools, they said.

“Our children deserve a great middle school, where the amazing work and progress of their elementary schools can be continued,” said Carla Ferris, a parent at Powell Elementary in Petworth, who described the heartbreak of watching students go in many different directions after fifth grade.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson acknowledged that most of the District’s traditional middle schools and its K-8 education campuses have failed to attract families. She suggested that perhaps the city should figure out how to funnel children to charter schools in the middle grades, arguing that “they know how to do middle school really well.”

Education Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) bristled at that suggestion and called on Henderson to produce a middle school improvement and funding plan.

“If whoever you have in your administration can’t figure out middle schools, get someone else,” Catania said. “I’m not about to outsource middle schools to charters.”

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith is leading the boundary effort, which will determine which schools students have a right to attend based on their city addresses. The changes could affect real estate markets and could shift the racial and class makeups of the city’s schools.

Smith is co-chairing an advisory committee that aims to make draft boundary-change recommendations by May. She faced criticism Friday from parents who said that her office was not transparent in how it chose the 21 members of that committee.

Parents from Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River in neighborhoods that for years have sent many children west each morning in search of better schools, said they felt underrepresented on the committee. That could help deepen divisions in an already divided city, one parent warned.

“If you don’t look at who you have on the committee representing the wards, then you’re going to go down the path where we’ll start looking at two different cities,” said parent Candace Rhett. “There will be a black city and a white city.”

Smith said she and her team would consider the feedback, but she emphasized that there are many other ways for people to ensure their voices are heard, including focus groups, working groups and community meetings scheduled for coming months. Ultimately, decisions will be made by the mayor, who does not need council approval to change school boundaries.

In a sign of the political importance of the school-boundary debate, the hearing drew several council members who are running for mayor, including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Politicians and parents said they want the boundary-change process to produce two things: diverse schools and strong neighborhood schools that families have a right to attend without having to gamble in lotteries. It will be a challenge to achieve both in a city with segregated housing patterns.

“If we just have neighborhood schools, what are we going to do, just have white schools? Just have African American schools?” asked Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). “We don’t want that.”