The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They believe more students should attend neighborhood schools. But what happens when it’s their child?

It’s a short walk from Malia Weedon’s Capitol Hill home to Eliot-Hine Middle. While the Weedons have seen the benefits of her attending the neighborhood middle school, they have also encountered  challenges.
It’s a short walk from Malia Weedon’s Capitol Hill home to Eliot-Hine Middle. While the Weedons have seen the benefits of her attending the neighborhood middle school, they have also encountered challenges. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)
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Joe Weedon plans to prolong the decision as long as he can. He wants to attend just one more school open house. Talk to just a few more parents and teachers. Wrestle with the choice while he coaches just one more youth baseball game.

And he needs to talk it through with his daughter and wife at just one more dinner in their rowhouse on the eastern edge of the District’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The looming decision is one that for so many people transcends the politics and values they so devoutly hold: Where will his eighth-grade daughter, Malia, attend high school in the fall?

Will she go to the selective public high school she was accepted to along with hundreds of other high-achieving children? Or will she attend Eastern Senior High, the traditional public high school blocks from her home, a school with an International Baccalaureate (IB) program and robust extracurricular activities — but low scores on standardized tests?

The angst is compounded for Weedon, who is one of the city’s most passionate boosters of neighborhood schools. Eastern would seem like the natural choice. But when it comes to his daughter — when it comes to anyone making a decision about their own child — everything is more complicated.

D.C. had a plan to diversify one of its most selective high schools.

“Is there a win in this?” Weedon said. “No, there’s not one good choice.”

And although Weedon, who is white, says this is a decision about the academic experience his daughter is seeking, it’s hard to ignore that if Malia were to attend Eastern, she would be one of the only white students at a school where the 800 or so student body is predominantly black and low-income.

Weedon, a nonprofit leader and former representative on the D.C. State Board of Education, believes that if more students in the District attended the schools around the block from their homes, education would be better — for everyone.

He has stood on that pulpit as a father and an elected official, always able to say he sends his two children to the elementary and middle schools blocks away from his home.

But now his daughter is old enough to have a say in where she will go to school. Three years ago, he and his wife decided to send Malia to Eliot-Hine, the neighborhood middle school where most children come from low-income families and she is one of the few white students.

While the Weedons have seen the social and community benefits that come with attending their neighborhood middle school, they have also encountered the challenges. Most prominently: high turnover among teachers and administrators, which leads to an unstable academic environment. His daughter says she has become an expert card player because of all the free time she has had with substitute teachers.

In D.C. Board of Education races, voters choose proponents of traditional public schools.

Malia — a confident, self-
described nerd — said she would rather go to Eastern and commute by foot each day. But she wants to make sure it would be a more rigorous experience than middle school.

“It doesn’t matter to me who goes there,” Malia said.

Attending the application high school would mean Malia would have to travel downtown each day. “I don’t want to transfer three buses and go across the city just to go to school,” she said.

These application schools — intended to attract top-performing students — go against the Weedons’ education convictions. They believe using testing as an admission requirement creates a barrier to students from low-
income families and benefits children like Malia.

In Eastern, the Weedons see a school on the rise. A school with a strong principal that could offer their daughter robust social and extracurricular options, but a school they aren’t entirely convinced would provide her the academic rigor she is seeking.

“I believe strongly in our community, and I believe that every kid deserves a great education,” said Amy Weedon, Malia’s mother. “It’s what sent and kept her in Eliot-Hine, and it’s what puts Eastern on our list.”

When Joe and Amy Weedon moved into their rowhouse nearly two decades ago in a corner of the District since rebranded as the more upscale “Hill East,” most people living there were African American, with a large number of older black Washingtonians who had their homes for generations.

D.C. partners with college to offer associate degree to high schoolers in poorest neighborhoods.

White and more affluent families started moving in. The Weedons were part of a group of young, educated parents who banded together and said they would send their children to the neighborhood schools. They would be involved, volunteering at schools and advocating at city hall for more resources. And they would work to improve the middle and high schools in their neighborhoods — Joe Weedon is a longtime member of Eastern’s Parent Teacher Organization, though he has yet to have a child enroll there — so when it came time for their children to attend, they would want to enroll.

In 2008, Malia started preschool two blocks from home at Maury Elementary, a school with a student body that was mostly black and with plenty of empty seats. By the time she graduated eight years later, most of the students were white and classrooms were filled in some grades.

“When we told people we were going to Maury, people looked at us like we were crazy,” Amy Weedon recalled.

As the city gentrified, white and upper-income families like the Weedons have enrolled their children in their neighborhood elementary schools, particularly in the lower grades. But then they leave — and flee to private or top-performing charter or selective schools for the later grades.

Malia was one of two white children from her elementary school to enroll at Eliot-Hine Middle.

School demographic data shows just how unusual the Weedons’ decision was.

Only three of the 15 neighborhood middle schools in the District’s traditional public school system have a white student enrollment exceeding 2 percent. Many of the city’s middle schools are combined with elementary schools, and most have no white children either.

Only one of the city’s nine neighborhood high schools has a white student enrollment exceeding 1 percent.

The District’s traditional public schools educate more than 52,000 children. City data show 61 percent are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are white, 2 percent are Asian, and 2 percent identify with two or more races.

The charter school sector educates nearly half the District’s public school population, and 6 percent of charter students are white.

Some of this is to be expected. The District’s neighborhoods are largely segregated, and in the newly gentrifying neighborhoods, many of the white children are not yet old enough to attend middle or high school.

But Capitol Hill is different.

It is one of the city’s more diverse neighborhoods. Affluent and white families with teenagers live there. It’s just that many have never considered Eastern an option.

Can that change?

Benefits in diversity

On a blustery afternoon, Eastern sophomore Christian Johnson gave D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee a tour of the neighborhood around the high school.

They exited the school’s Gothic brick building, which has two towers capped by parapets — a structure more at home at an elite university than in the middle of the District.

They walked past the sign with the school’s motto: “The Pride of Capitol Hill.” And they strolled along East Capitol Street Northeast, in front of rowhouses that sell for nearly $1 million.

Christian pointed the chancellor in the direction of his grandmother’s house and said the neighborhood has changed drastically since he was younger.

“Now, the area is much whiter,” Johnson, who is black, told the chancellor.

When Christian’s mother, Sonia Johnson, attended Eastern in the 1980s, the crack epidemic had ravaged the neighborhood.

Johnson recalled the school as an oasis from the violence surrounding it. The community and students embraced the school’s award-winning choir and marching band.

But there were profound struggles as well. Enrollment plummeted. In 2010, the city closed Eastern. A year-long shutdown allowed the school to be revamped, reopening year-by-year. An IB track and a popular health science program followed — all housed in a building renovated to the tune of $77 million.

Three decades since her graduation, Sonia Johnson says Eastern is far from perfect, but she believes there is more academic support for students.

“Teachers are willing to help,” she said. “After school, they’ll spend an hour and help the kids catch up.”

Like Malia Weedon, Christian attended Maury Elementary. He left for Maryland for two years, and when he returned in fourth grade, he said the school was majority white — a reflection of how quickly the neighborhood gentrified.

Johnson said it was the only time he was in classrooms alongside white students. For the first time, he learned what it was like to be the minority in a classroom.

“It molded me into a different person,” he said of his time at the racially diverse Maury.

He went on to Eliot-Hine, and now he’s at Eastern.

The charismatic teenager, who aspires to be a stand-up comedian, plays saxophone in the marching band and takes Advanced Placement courses. He says he’s on track to be in the IB program his junior year and plans to attend college.

In 2018, 53 percent of Eastern graduates attended four-year colleges, a significant increase from the previous year.

But for all its improvements, Eastern still has challenges. Test scores are low, absenteeism is high — probably reflecting the difficulties that come with serving a high concentration of students from low-income families.

About 25 percent of Eastern students require special-
education services. More than 60 percent are considered “at risk,” defined as students whose families are homeless or receive welfare, or those who are more than a grade level behind in high school.

And the grand building is a third empty.

Most of the students come from neighborhoods outside Eastern’s boundaries.

According to city data, only 19 percent of the high-school-age students — 291 teenagers — who live in Eastern’s boundaries attend the school. Neighborhood students across all racial and socioeconomic groups are choosing other options.

Experts say families’ education decisions have consequences for the entire community.

Halley Potter, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank, said it’s not that white or affluent children inherently make a school better. But these families bring more resources with them. More experienced teachers often follow.

Data show racially and economically diverse schools can help close the achievement gap between students from low-
income families and their wealthier peers. Children from upper-income families experience no academic decline, and the experience of being in diverse classrooms can challenge their own prejudices.

“There are individual benefits and societal benefits,” Potter said. “That’s something we want for all children.”

But creating a diverse school is not an easy feat.

Abigail Smith, the city’s former deputy mayor for education, said white families are often uncomfortable sending their children to schools where students come from mostly black and Hispanic families — and that would have to occur if Eastern were to grow more racially diverse.

“You better believe what drives decisions — and this isn’t unique to the District — is people’s level of comfort being in the extreme racial minority,” Smith said. “And white families are less willing to do it.”

'No reason not to go there'

Christine Clapp, whose two children attend Maury Elementary and are years away from high school, attended a theory of knowledge class at Eastern last year, observing students discuss how historians create knowledge and humans learn to process that knowledge as fact.

The invitation was part of Principal Sah Brown’s plan to introduce residents to Eastern.

Clapp, who is white, came away impressed. After the visit, it was decided.

Her children would attend Eastern.

“I want my kids to know they are no better than any other kids from any other background and to pull them out of their feeder school because it’s predominantly black school, that sends the wrong message,” Clapp said.

For the first time, Brown and his staff have been visiting the five middle schools that feed into Eastern with the school’s band and choir and delivering presentations on its academic offerings. He has opened up the school to youth soccer leagues so young families can spend time in the building.

Because of school boundary changes — which made the school’s zone larger and whiter — he said many families do not even associate Eastern as being their neighborhood high school.

Brown knows families — black and white — are often dissuaded from attending the school, and he’s trying to combat that by having students do the talking.

“It’s so powerful when the students stand in front of their peers,” Brown said. “A lot of them will be very transparent and say that people told them not to attend Eastern, but they are sharing that it’s been a great experience.”

But recruiting high school students is more complicated than just creating a good school. First, families need to decide to enroll their children in neighborhood middle schools — an area that city leaders have acknowledged has been a weak spot.

At School-Within-School @ Goding — an elementary school that is nearly 70 percent white and feeds into Eastern — the fourth-grade class had 42 students last academic year. This year, the fifth-grade class has 15 students — evidence of the outflow of students, because many charter middle schools begin in fifth grade.

The neighborhood middle schools and Eastern face steep competition from charter and application schools. On Capitol Hill, the neighborhood schools are losing.

According to city data, 130 students who live within Eastern’s boundary attend Basis DC charter school and Washington Latin Public Charter School. More than 100 students attend School Without Walls, a prestigious application high school that Malia Weedon is considering. And nearly 80 attend Friendship Public Charter School, a respected charter network with a mostly African American student body.

The Schoells are the only white family on Capitol Hill who did not leave their neighborhood for high school.

Heather Schoell’s reasoning: She liked Eastern, and it was a few blocks from home.

She said putting her daughters in Eastern — the school’s only two white children — was not some grand political statement.

“When I walked in there, I didn’t see anything troubling. There was no reason not to go there,” Schoell said. “We’re not making a sacrifice by going here.”

Now, it’s the Weedons who must decide. They learned March 29 that Malia was accepted into School Without Walls, a stroke of luck that does not make the family feel all that lucky.

Joe Weedon said it is hard to turn down Walls, an elite school in such high demand that qualified students have to win a lottery to secure a slot. The family is leaning toward Walls.

But he’s not ready to reject Eastern just yet. So he is going to weigh the decision just a few more days — put his education beliefs aside for just a few days, and think about what’s best for Malia.

“Malia can’t change generations of segregation on her own,” Weedon said. “I can’t put that on the shoulders of my 14-year-old.”

But maybe it will be different when his son, two years younger, is ready for high school. He is already having a more fruitful middle school experience at ­Eliot-Hine. When it’s their son’s turn, the Weedons hope they can confidently enroll him in Eastern.

Right now, it’s about Malia and the choices in front of them.

“In some ways,” Joe Weedon said, “I’m disappointed we won the lottery.”

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