Growing up in certain Washington neighborhoods has long meant a student-athlete could choose where to play his or her respective sports in high school. If a student lived near Langston Golf Course on Benning Road in Northeast, he or she could choose from Eastern, Dunbar and football power H.D. Woodson. Those options were also available to those three miles away in the Fort Lincoln community in Northeast.
But in a move that may alter the high school options for thousands, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) authorized late last month new school boundaries that are set to go into effect for the 2015-16 school year.
D.C. Council member and Democratic mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser rejected Gray’s proposal last week, saying the plan would “exacerbate educational inequality,” and said the boundary overhaul should begin under the newly elected mayor.
Some coaches see it differently. “It will benefit me because [Ward 8] has more school age kids than any other ward,” Ballou football Coach Jason Lane said of the plan. “You keep the kids in the neighborhoods they grew up in.”
But Lane worries that “kids that want to get out and want to venture out and do something different” will have to stay in their neighborhood.
If Gray’s boundaries are put into place, those near Langston Golf Course would be assigned to Eastern, and Fort Lincoln’s neighborhood school would be Dunbar. In Southwest and Southeast, Bolling Air Force Base and Congress Heights residents would attend Ballou. Residents in Barry Farm and near Fort Dupont Park would head to Anacostia. For several decades, those in Barry Farm fed into Ballou.
Northwest neighborhoods such as Woodley Park and Shepherd Park would feed Wilson, and Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights residents would be assigned to Cardozo. Dupont Circle residents currently feed into Wilson — a highly sought school by District families because of its academic reputation — which has a much smaller attendance zone under the proposed shift.
The new boundary lines come a year after the D.C. State Athletic Association ruled student-athletes would have to sit a year when transferring.
The current system, which gives students options for high school, has caused under-enrollment at some schools. Theodore Roosevelt, which was a girls’ basketball power in the late 2000s, was not able to field a team last season, and maintaining numbers on the Rough Riders’ football roster has been an annual struggle in recent years.
“To me, honestly, kids in their neighborhood should go to their neighborhood school,” Theodore Roosevelt boys’ basketball Coach Rob Nickens said. “If you look at Maryland, they do that. I think with kids going to neighborhood schools, we could have more people coming out and supporting.”
A boundary shift could also result in more people coming out and playing as enrollments level out, creating more balanced rosters and perhaps more parity.
Nickens said his rosters have been about half neighborhood students and half out-of-boundary students in his eight years at the school. Johnnie Shuler, a 2014 All-Met, was a Northeast resident while linebacker Darin Drakeford, a 2009 graduate who spent time during the NFL preseason with the Atlanta Falcons, was from the school’s surrounding Petworth neighborhood.
According to Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, the current feeder system and patterns “are so misaligned that you can have entire neighborhoods that are in-boundary for one school but feed to several high schools.”
The move would not put an end to out-of-boundary students being allowed at schools. Mayor Gray’s new recommendation calls for a minimum of 20 percent of out-of-boundary students to be admitted to high schools. There would be a minimum of 10 percent for elementary schools and 15 percent for middle schools. Currently, 25 percent of District students are out-of-boundary students.
At Coolidge, Lane was a beneficiary of the current system when current Denver Broncos defensive tackle Marvin Austin played for the Colts as a junior. He lived near Mississippi Avenue in Southeast, and for his senior year he returned to his neighborhood school, Ballou. With Austin on the roster, the Knights won the Turkey Bowl. Austin’s seamless transfer would not have occurred today due to the DCSAA transfer rule.
“While almost all of our schools are currently serving well above the out-of-boundary minimums outlined in the recommendations, establishing a minimum is important to ensure that out-of-boundary families will never be completely shut out of any DCPS school,” Smith said.
Current high school students will not be affected by the policy that could go into effect next year. And if students are in the third grade or higher, they could continue to attend the schools they already planned to attend.
But students below the third grade would be rezoned. The proposed move may compel more parents to opt for private schools or the ever-growing public charter schools around the area to avoid poorly performing neighborhood schools.
“Parents will continue to make educational decisions based on what they feel is best for their child’s academic success,” Executive Director of the D.C. State Athletic Association Clark Ray said in an e-mail.