D.C. Public Schools says it will examine how the changes affect enrollment and does not yet know if there will be an admission exam next year.
Across the country, school districts have faced pressure to open elite schools to students who live in every corner of their cities and counties. They’ve been faced with the contentious question of how to remain selective while also creating classrooms that reflect the demographics of the jurisdictions they serve.
D.C. Public Schools and School Without Walls — the school system’s only selective high school that has an in-person admission exam — have faced those same pressures.
While other selective high schools in the city do not have admission tests, many call on students to hit certain scores on a national standardized exam known as PARCC. Students did not take the exam last spring, so it will not be part of the application process at any school in the District.
Walls parents and lawmakers say that dramatically changing the admissions requirements in the middle of the pandemic with little public input is not the answer.
The application process would still include GPA requirements and an interview, with seats distributed to qualifying students through a lottery.
At a budget hearing in November, Walls parents argued in front of Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee that the city needs to commit more resources to the school before it enrolls more students who may have different needs than the current population. They also said the city should bolster middle school academics to ensure that everyone has a fair shot of meeting the rigorous standards to enroll in Walls.
The school system has said it is considering alternatives to the exam but has not specified what that would be.
“I understand that D.C. wants to level the playing field,” a parent of a Black student said at the budget hearing. “However the issue is not a Walls issue, it is not the application process. It is the access that students need — or don’t have — in their middle and elementary schools to the type of education that will prepare them for a school like Walls.”
The Walls admissions process came under fire in 2019 when school leaders did not follow city rules when trying to expand access to the school. The easing of admissions requirements was rolled back, and it was a blunder that may have resulted in fewer students from low-income families applying.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said in an email Friday that he worries that changing the admissions process so close to deadline could leave many families out. The admission test was scheduled to be administered in February.
“How do we ensure students from all parts of the city understand this process and put forward the best application they can,” Allen wrote. “The problem with late changes is that it benefits students with a strong support network around them much more than students who already face a number of obstacles.”
The Walls student body is 51 percent White, 25 percent Black, 12 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian, with 5 percent of students identifying with more than one race. Ten percent of students are at-risk, which means they are homeless, in foster care, or their families qualify for public assistance. Citywide, 47 percent of students are considered at-risk.
A 2019 report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor found that Walls and other elite high schools in the city enrolled few children who attended neighborhood middle schools where most students come from low-income families. Conversely, children from low-income families who made it into selective high schools usually had attended middle schools outside their neighborhood.
Walls also has no children who have special education needs, according to the auditor’s report.
Between 2014 and 2019, the 600-student campus enrolled an average of 16 additional White students each year and enrolled 16 fewer Black students, according to city data. That resulted in a 37 percent increase of White students, and a 35 percent decrease in Black students. During that time, the number of students applying from Ward 3, the wealthiest corner of the city, jumped nearly 50 percent. Applications from Ward 6, another area with wealthy families, increased by 20 percent.