Greater Greater Education

DC begins to redraw school boundaries

The long-awaited, or perhaps long-dreaded, DCPS boundary-drawing process has begun. While it's bound to be painful for some, it's also long overdue.


Photo by sharonyau1995 on Flickr.

Yesterday a 20-member task force finally kicked off the review of DC school feeder patterns and boundaries that was originally supposed to have been finished by June 2013. The task force, led by the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, is scheduled to recommend changes by May. Then, after an opportunity for public comment (which will undoubtedly be utilized to the hilt), the recommendations will be finalized in September. A year later, for school year 2015-16, they'll finally take effect.

In addition to boundaries, the task force may also consider whether at least some charter schools should give a preference to neighborhood residents and think about having feeder patterns that cross charter/DCPS lines. These are developments that would help create some much-needed coherence between the charter and traditional public school systems.

Although Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith says the timing has nothing to do with politics, it's hard not to notice that the mayoral primary will be safely over by the time any recommendations emerge.

The big issue is boundaries and feeder patterns for middle and especially high schools. Parents currently zoned for Deal Middle School and Wilson High Schoolthe most desirable, and most crowded, DCPS secondary schoolsmay be feeling nervous as they contemplate being relegated to schools with much lower performance records.

But this is the first time boundaries have been reconsidered since the 1970s, and obviously, much has changed. Schools in Ward 3, like Deal and Wilson, that were under-enrolled then are now bursting at the seams. It no longer makes sense to have the Wilson catchment area swallowing what appears to be nearly half the District. Other high schools, like the newly reconstructed Dunbar, are half empty.

Generally speaking, the high school boundaries (as I once heard a principal observe) look as though they were drawn by a child with a crayon.

It may be true, as some have said, that redrawing the Wilson boundaries will result in an even whiter, more affluent school. But other areas of the District have become more diverse (which, in DC, generally means more white) and more affluent. So while Wilson will become less diverse, other schools will become more so.

Almost universally, parents these days say they want their kids to go to a school with a diverse student body. But very few are willing to have their kids be the pioneers in making a high-poverty, largely minority school more diverse. Far be it from me to cast stones in their direction. But sometimes, if change is going to occur, it has to be imposed.

It would be nice to think that this is a win-win situation, but that's far from clear. Current students at neighborhood high schools other than Wilson may well benefit from an influx of more affluent families, who may insist that schools improve their offerings. But it's not clear that affluent students will benefit from going to schools with a predominantly low-income population.

Studies, including one of Montgomery County, have shown that when poor students attend predominantly wealthy schools, they do better, and the wealthy students do none the worse. But if there are too few high-income students at a low-income school, it's not clear that anyone does better. It's also not clear how many affluent students need to attend a school in order to bring up its performance.

Still, change has to start somewhere. It would be nice if all schools were performing at the level of Deal and Wilson before the boundaries were redrawn. But that looks, to say the least, unlikely. While there's no guarantee, there's a better chance that schools outside of Ward 3 will improve if the school boundaries are redrawn in a way that reflects where people are choosing to live.

Natalie Wexler is the editor of Greater Greater Education and a member of the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution, an organization that promotes the teaching of analytical writing. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

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Are there data to support the kind of role advocates have had via GGW, etc.?

I'm thinking of data explaining where specifically (by school name/address) students in given blocks/census tracts/school boundaries actually attend DCPS, charter and/or private, household income, numbers of children by age cohort, births by census tract, etc.?

The IFF quality schools report from a few years ago had data vaguely like this but not specific enough.

We cannot have an open process without open data.

by Anna Nimiss on Oct 29, 2013 12:30 pm • linkreport

The American Community Survey has some of the info about household income, age of kids, etc. The decennial census also has some but it's obviously from 2010 (so older data w/ larger sample size).

There is info about which neighborhoods different school populations come from--http://greatergreatereducation.org/post/20302/choosing-a-school-just-got-easier/ has the details.

by sbc on Oct 29, 2013 3:22 pm • linkreport

Given Wilson's large area, this is an excellent reason to restore the present Duke Ellington building to its former status as Western High School, to add high school capacity to meet demand west of Rock Creek Park. As Ellington serves the entire city, it should be rebuilt in a new location that is more central, near public transit and ideally co-located near a performing arts venue.

by Ralph on Oct 29, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

If Wilson gets richer and whiter that means minorities will be in poorer schools with lower performance based on the current reality. I don't see how that helps them. It only help rich whites.

"So while Wilson will become less diverse, other schools will become more so." What do you mean by more diverse? If I am a minority at Wilson I am at a more diverse (from my perspective) school now than I will be if I move to Dunbar or Eastern. There are more whites at Wilson than any other non-test in high school.

by leeindc on Oct 29, 2013 7:35 pm • linkreport

@leeindc: I'm talking about diversity as an objective rather than a subjective experience. If Dunbar or Eastern become even 5% white rather than 0% white, that will make them more diverse. It's true that a black student at Wilson would be more likely to come into contact with white students at Wilson than at a Dunbar where only 5% of students are white, but Dunbar where 5% of the students are white would still be more diverse than it is now.

by Natalie Wexler on Oct 29, 2013 9:43 pm • linkreport

So when will we talk about the fact that there has to be a new high school west of the park?

by Matt on Oct 30, 2013 9:54 am • linkreport

@ Matt, that time was last night, at least in my house. Van Ness/UDC area was our preliminary area selection.

by Non LTR on Oct 30, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

It would be nice to think that this is a win-win situation, but that's far from clear. Current students at neighborhood high schools other than Wilson may well benefit from an influx of more affluent families, who may insist that schools improve their offerings. But it's not clear that affluent students will benefit from going to schools with a predominantly low-income population.

Never mind whether they will benefit, it's unclear that those affluent atudents will attend the schools in question at all. For many families in this category, Wilson is "good enough" - it's not like they think it's the greatest school inteh world, it's just the best one available, and good enough that they don't have to consider drastic options. If all of a sudden their kids are zoned for Cardozo, Roosevelt and Coolidge, many (most?) of those kids will be either moving to the burbs, or submitting private school applications.

by dcd on Oct 30, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

I wonder how much of this process will be informed by data and analysis on housing patterns, school commute patterns, and school choice preferences -- and how much will be based on pure politics.

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 30, 2013 3:38 pm • linkreport

How world this fit with Henderson's proposal to concentrate AP's. It sometimes feels like they have been dropping lots of ideas to see it anything sticks. I don't see the high school issue being solved until we have stronger middle schools and that in turn means better elementary schools. That may instead require addressing the intense poverty in this city.

by DC Parent on Oct 30, 2013 8:41 pm • linkreport

Thanks for clarifying Natalie

by leeindc on Oct 30, 2013 11:15 pm • linkreport

So when will we talk about the fact that there has to be a new high school west of the park?

Note that the Council is days away from approving a lease that will put the old Hardy Middle School on Foxhall Road into the hands of a private school until 2068:
http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/images/00001/20131002101627.pdf

This is the only piece of DCPS property west of the park not currently being used as a public school.

by contrarian on Oct 31, 2013 8:44 am • linkreport

It is not a good omen that the boundary revision process is being led by a political office (dme) in the middle of an election that likely includes mayor gray seeking re-elect against primary challenges from Evans, Wells and Bowser. Sure hope it doesn't wind up being an electoral wedge issue but it seems headed that way.

More substantively, I am not sure this is all about Ward 3 and Wilson and I definitely don't think it should be. Boundary revisions mean that good schools boundaries shrink and bad schools expand. That is just the simple math of people moving in bounds to the good schools.

Forced SES integration with high SES kids being "zoned into maj/min low SES schools" doesn't work becuase many high SES families will vote with their feet.

The only way this really works is to stop shuffling chairs on the deck and actually make the social investment to flood low SES/performing elementary schools with enough resources to turn them around and close the achievement gap. This is less about money than about full service schools that give young learners social capital and adress underlying social pathologies.

If we put our efforts into closing the gap before middle school, economically (and therefore racially) integrated middle schools and high schools won't be a problem. It's not the poverty or the race that drive high SES parents away from integrated schools, it's the low-attainment and the social pathologies that do it. Especially when schools have to "teach-down" instead of lift up.

Address these issues head-on in neighborhood elementary schools produce proficient kids, and people will be happy to meet in middle school and high schools and the boundary issue becomes less fraught.

by Almost maryland on Nov 4, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

The only way this really works is to stop shuffling chairs on the deck and actually make the social investment to flood low SES/performing elementary schools with enough resources to turn them around and close the achievement gap.

Problem is, that doesn't work. You turn low SES schools around by making their student populations non low-SES--or effectively doing so by increasing their family's living standards. Or, as has been done in many DCPS schools, by displacing poor students with middle-class students.

by oboe on Nov 6, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure it can be said that it doesn't work because DCPS has not made a real attempt to create full service neighborhood elementary schools. Some charters are succeeding at doing this very thing. What they are doing is changing community/parent culture so that some of the most damaging social challenges that are associated with multigenerational concentrated poverty are over come. In other words, they work on changing behavior and mental patterns that perpetuate the cycle, not necessarily income support for families. It is about helping parents and kids get out of the mindset that exacerbates the direct impacts of poverty to break the cycle. While correlated, there is a big diferrence between being poor and lacking the social capital to escape poverty through education. I'd really like to see us try this at scale before saying it can't be done.

by Almost maryland on Nov 7, 2013 10:07 am • linkreport

High SES parents will vote with their feet.

From 2012-13 Demographics
Enrollment % White
School W/O Walls 548 35
Wilson 1713 22
Ellington 541 10
McKinley 697 1
Banneker 394 1

If we count the number of white children in DCPS this works out to something like 190 + 380 + 53 + 4

There seems to be a cut-off that might be as low as 10% (Duke Ellington) but is certainly bigger than 5%.

Note that Wilson is the ONLY *comprehensive* high school with ANY (significant) white participation. All the other programs listed are specialty focus/application only schools and the ones east of the park have 1% white participation.

If you could split Wilson in half and create two comprehensive high schools with 22% high-SES/white demographic, you MIGHT have a chance to create an high school that the parents might send their children to. It depends upon how scary and disruptive the transition is.

Take a look at McKinley and Eastern, which have great facilities but have not (yet?) attracted the high SES/white population as an "acceptable" DCPS HS.

by Still A Parent in DC on Nov 18, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

Still A Parent, I think your analysis leaves some factors out. For one thing, you can't simply use white the only indicator of higher SES; the high performing NW DCPS schools tend to have a good number of higher SES non-white students. Moreover, the higher SES schools that are feeders for Hardy, Deal, and Wilson are pretty diverse.

That said, parents who are fortunate enough to have their kids in these "better" elementary schools (either because they live in a neighborhood or got out of bounds places) are going to be reluctant to send their kids to high schools other than Walls, Wilson, Ellington, and Banneker. These parents (even if they live East of the park) see other DCPS high schools as having a very different environment than the schools their kids have been attending, and the kids want to stay with their friends.

There are some other factors too. Crosstown public transportation from the higher SES neighborhoods in upper NW is not very good, which is probably a big reason why so few white kids go to Banneker. Moreover, Wilson is good for kids with strong academic skills, so Banneker's academic strength doesn't give it an advantage by comparison, and Banneker can't offer the sports programs that Wilson does.

It's also worth noting that the percentage of white students in the DCPS schools goes down in the higher grades. I think that the sad reality is that most parents (of all races) face tough choices when their kids age out of elementary school. Generally, the middle schools are too big, and middle school is a pretty lousy educational concept anyway. Even if your kid goes to a good, small middle school (like Hardy or Stuart-Hobson), the range of choices in high school is dismal, unless your kid is highly motivated, with strong academic or artistic skills.

Right now, DCPS offers no really good choices for parents of high school students who are academically average and/or need the kind of attention that isn't available in a huge comprehensive high school. That's why so many parents -- even those who are committed to public schools -- look at private, parochial, and charter schools when the kids get older. My husband & I did that; and I know a lot of other parents who did the same. We live in upper NW, are white & well-educated, but our daughter wouldn't have survived Wilson, and very likely would not have gone to college if we'd sent her there.

I don't think there is an easy answer, because I think that what the District really needs (for all of its children) is radically different thinking about how we educate adolescents. It would help if, in redrawing boundaries, more thought is given to transportation and to logical locations for specialized schools. But what is really needed is to change almost all the high schools, so that kids are part of smaller units (maybe schools within schools) and to provide real career education for the kids for whom college is not the best choice.

The commander who suggested moving Ellington to a location closer to arts venues has a good idea. Maybe a new Ellington could be built as part of the SW waterfront renewal; it'd be close to the Arena Stage & museums on the Mall, and have easy access to the Kennedy Center, as well as good public transit to the whole city. Jefferson Middle school has a large playing field that might be shared with a new Ellington. The building Ellington now uses could be renovated to be a relatively small "comprehensive" high school. It's not got as good citywide transportation links, but it might well attract the parents (both in & out of bounds) who have sent their kids to schools like Hyde, Stoddert, Key, Hardy, and Stuart-Hobson, and who would rather not send their children to Wilson. That could make for a diverse school, as well as an experiment DCPS hasn't tried: a small high school that is not special focus/application only.

Back in the 1960s, a group of parents, teachers, and administrators got together and came up with a truly innovative plan to save the elementary schools West of the park and South of Massachusetts Ave. Today, these schools are some of the best in the District, but back then, the schools were in decline & facing closure. What these people came up with was the Six School Complex, an extremely successful program that included the Fillmore Arts Center, a nationally recognized program. Today, people tend to assume that the success of the schools in this area is just an inevitable result of the socio-economic mix of the neighborhoods; but that is not the case. The schools in the area are strong today (even though the Six School Complex is no longer active) because of the innovations made back then.

It would be great if the need to redraw boundaries now gives people the motivation to cooperate and innovate the way those parents, teachers, and administrators did in the '60s. Let's hope it does.

by Sally C on Jan 30, 2014 9:56 pm • linkreport

Sally C I have to agree more options that are real options meaning transport, quality and track record are needed. What has been interesting to me is to see how various anonymous discussion in places like DCUM has evolved on the middle school question. What I see is tremendous fear, that kids will be put in a situation where they academic triage will result in academically prepared students are left to their own devices while poorly prepared students are the focus of attention. I would like to say this is just ego, but having spent several years in a title one school, until we were able to get an OOB placement in Ward 3, I would say this is the reality. The tremendous gap in preparation between elementary schools is fundamental to the rift between successful and failing middle and high schools. This rift is not just teaching but also a miasma of socio-economic and language factors that I don't think anyone has been able to address on a mass scale. In my experience there between a Ward 2 title one school and a Ward 3 school was that there was already a full year difference in the material being used by 2nd grade and this just grows. There is no path to a viable middle schools if this gap is not addressed.

by DC Parent on Feb 1, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

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