School boundary review, part 1: Committee grapples with a changed DC, while parents worry

The committee that has been reviewing DC's school boundaries and feeder patterns will unveil several possible scenarios for a new assignment system on April 5. In the meantime, anxiety abounds in some neighborhoods.

High school boundaries in 2012-3. Image by David Alpert using Google Maps and data from OCTO.

DC's school assignment system hasn't been revised since 1968. A lot has changed since then, and DC officials say it's necessary to adjust school attendance zones to accommodate those changes. But some parents and prospective parents say existing boundaries and feeder patterns should stay in place until schools across the District have improved.

The Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), Abigail Smith, is in charge of the boundary overhaul process. A 23-member advisory committee, composed of parents and community members representing every ward in the District, has been meeting since October. The DME's office has also convened focus groups to get feedback and has held community meetings.

The next phase of the process will begin April 5, when several proposed school assignment scenarios will be presented, and working groups will begin to meet to discuss them. The presentations will be open to the public, and community members can sign up to participate in the working groups.

Three different community meetings will be held in three different sectors of the District: Center City (at Dunbar HS), East End (at Anacostia HS), and Upper NW & NE (at Coolidge HS). While residents are free to attend any of the meetings, and the presentations will be the same, the working groups will focus on schools in the area where the meeting is located.

The committee plans to release its recommendations in July, and the mayor will announce a final plan in September. Changes won't go into effect until the 2015-16 school year.

The case for change

In a presentation to the Chevy Chase ANC on March 10 that was similar to those she has given elsewhere, Smith made a case for revising the assignment process without further delay. Current attendance zones are based on housing and school attendance patterns of the 1970s, she said, resulting in imbalances and inequities.

The lines were drawn when many in Ward 3 weren't sending their kids to neighborhood schools, and as a result the Wilson High School boundary includes 40% of the District's land mass. Smith said that Wilson now has about 500 8th-graders destined to become its entering freshman class. But Roosevelt High School only has around 50, even though 2000 high-school-age kids live within the Roosevelt boundaries.

The current zones and feeder patterns also don't take account of the existence of charter schools and the closures of many DCPS schools. Since 1996, 58 such schools have closed. In other cases, such as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, schools have changed from being neighborhood schools to magnet schools.

The result, Smith said, is that some schools are overcrowded while others are half empty. To make matters more complex, 23% of all DCPS students attend schools that aren't the schools they're assigned to, and only 25% do attend their in-boundary school.

Whether or not students attend their in-boundary school also varies greatly from ward to ward. In Ward 3, nearly all students attend their in-boundary school. But in Wards 7 and 8, nearly 80% either go to out-of-bounds DCPS schools or to charters.

The committee is also considering feeder patterns that would cross between DCPS and charter schools, with certain charter schools possibly giving a preference to students coming out of certain DCPS schools or vice versa. But, says Claudia Lujan, a senior policy adviser to the DME, the DC Council would need to change the law before charters could be required to admit particular students.

Different assignment models

The advisory committee has been looking at school assignment policies in 7 different cities. The models vary in the degree of choice allowed. At one end of the spectrum, a district may rigidly assign each family to a certain sequence of schools. At the other, as in San Francisco, there are no attendance zones, and families can express preferences but have no right to attend any particular school.

"The assumption," Smith said, "is that we won't end up at either extreme."

But it's still unclear exactly where we will end up. Smith and others on the committee have said repeatedly that "everything is on the table." While that phrase conveys open-mindedness, it's also so open-ended that it's caused anxiety among parents who don't know what to expect.

Tomorrow, in the next part of this post, we'll look at parents and prospective parents at two elementary schools in Northwest DC who are urging officials to retain the boundaries and feeder patterns we have now, at least until all schools in the District have reached a higher level of quality.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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Pretty clear that DC need to close a bunch of high schools.

by charlie on Mar 27, 2014 11:30 am • linkreport

It seems that the over crowding of Deal and Wilson would disappear over night if DCPS simply reversed the decision to give feeder school rights to OOB students. It would be very unpopular, of course, and with many OOB slots being taken by Ward 4 families, I imagine Mayor Bowser would oppose it. But it would solve the problem immediately.

by TM on Mar 27, 2014 11:31 am • linkreport

I thought Spingarn had closed down? Or is it just slated to for next year. Regardless, if the feeder patterns are based on 40+ year old data I think it's clear that a revision is long overdue.

by Joe on Mar 27, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

Joe - you're right, Spingarn did close, and I accidentally used an out-of-date map. Good catch.

by Natalie Wexler on Mar 27, 2014 12:30 pm • linkreport

"But some parents and prospective parents say existing boundaries and feeder patterns should stay in place until schools across the District have improved."

So what they're saying is never change the boundaries. When will whiny parents realize that students, teachers, and parents working together make the school; not the other way! The parents that are concerned probably feel as though their children are going from "good" schools to "bad" schools. Well if you put good kids in "bad" schools...won't that help improve their test results, thus improving the school...?

Someone please tell me what I'm missing here; other than modern day segregation.

by StringsAttached on Mar 27, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

How are the boundaries determined ?

Why does Eastern's boundaries cross the Anacostia River ?

Why is Woodson's boundary so small it should take Easterns area east of the Anacostia ?

Why is Wilson's area so huge, why not divide Wilsons area in Downtown, SW, West End and Dupont Circle between Dunbar & Anacostia which are the closer schools ?

Wilsons boundaries kinda look like old redlining maps

by kk on Mar 27, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

I totally agree with TM. There's no need to redraw Wilson's boundary if we stop the feeder pattern rule. The rule is only a few years old. It hurts families who move to DC in later grades since there's no space for their kids to lottery into feeders. It also skims off the highest-achieving kids (and those with the most parental involvement) at from the upper grades at non-Wilson-feeder elementary schools. Since those upper grades are the ones that take the DC-CAS, it also makes those schools look way worse than they really are.

I realize I say this out of self-interest: I live in SW and am zoned for Wilson. I have no faith in our Ward 6 representatives' interest or ability to keep us in Wilson--those who live on Capitol Hill, for example, have an incentive to put us in Eastern. But regardless of how the map is drawn I really think the feeder pattern rule is bad and has to stop.

by sbc on Mar 27, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

what an obviously classic case of the tragedy of the commons. holy cow.

the other high schools would improve if we stopped agreeing to send everybody who wants a good school to wilson.

by ballston guy on Mar 27, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

@ballston guy

For that to happen, you have to have a critical mass at each school. Would that critical mass exist?

by Dizzy on Mar 27, 2014 4:58 pm • linkreport

"It seems that the over crowding of Deal and Wilson would disappear over night if DCPS simply reversed the decision to give feeder school rights to OOB students."

A few thoughts

Is it fair to do this to the parent of a 5th or 8th grader or possibly more importantly to that student who will no longer be in school with his / her friends. Middle school is already a tough transition.

Won't OOB feeder issue be addressed ‘organically’ now that Murch, Lafayette and Janney are admitting few out-of-boundary students.

Why did DC wait to do renovations on one of the best performing schools Banneker? It is located in an up an coming corridor and with better facilities it could attract more students east of the park who currently travel to Wilson possibly easing some of the pressure on Wilson. My understanding is there are plans for SWoW to take over another building allowing the student body to expand possibly easing pressure on Wilson. DCPS should seek to address Deal / Wilson overcrowding in a variety of ways. With that said many people will still be unhappy.

by Common Denominator on Mar 28, 2014 10:15 am • linkreport

White papers in DCPS think they should get awards for sending their kids to public schools and, therefore, should be able to send their kids wherever they want. It's time to put an end to this de facto segregation and draw up some reasonable school boundaries that improve schools across the city. Having only one good middle school and one good high school in a city of almost 650,000 is a disgrace.

by Time for Change on Mar 28, 2014 10:29 am • linkreport

the other high schools would improve if we stopped agreeing to send everybody who wants a good school to wilson.

This assumes that the parents of the students you propose to allocate among other schools are OK with that option, or if not OK with it, have no other options. It's unlikely that's the case - and certainly it's not the case for enough kids to make the "critical mass" you need at the other schools.

We're a ways away from middle school, so I can't say for certain that Deal is the only DCPS middle school I'll be willing to send my daughter to when the time comes (and HS is a secondary consideration). But I can sssure you that If I don't like the available options in DCPS or DCPCS, I will not hesitate to go another route, whether that is private or moving to the suburbs. And I'm not an anomaly - there are a lot of parents who can and will make this choice, and you'll see the rising tide washing away instead of lifting all boats.

by dcd on Mar 28, 2014 1:57 pm • linkreport

I completely understand that a real solution is needed for this growing problem, however, I don't feel that simply expelling OOB students is the best solution. Sure it's a quick solution, but it isn't the best.

The OOB experience has been great for my children as they have been exposed to an abundance of culture, culture they might not have experienced in the their neighborhood school. Ambassadors, for example, generally send their children to DC public schools in Ward 3 (if they don't go the private route). My children have enjoyed learning about other cultures from their peers and they didn't have to wait until college to receive these unique perspectives. I think the diversity at some schools in Ward 3 make them extremely attractive options. This should be a goal at all schools.

I could be wrong, but I don't think DC taxes are allocated to schools based on the Ward; for example, Ward 4 taxpayers' taxes only contributing to the schools in their ward. Since I don't believe this is the case, as a DC taxpayer, I think I have the right to use the OOB process, including it's feeder pattern, if I am wiling to travel the extra distance for my child. I just feel that this type of dedication shouldn't be dismissed so easily.

I am also in agreement (someone else posted) that discontinuing the OOB feeder pattern, especially at the middle school level in my opinion, wouldn't be fair to those children who actually want to go to school and see their friends everyday. Not only that, the schools would then loose their diversity.

I don't feel as strongly about maintaining the OOB feeder pattern at the high school level because at this age children will have grown mature enough (for the most part) to break away from their established groups and can continue friendships at a distance should they choose. In addition, this is the age children (not just their parents) begin looking at more options for their education (private, magnet schools, DCPS schools with popular sports programs etc...) and they may break the feeder pattern anyway.

At any rate, I will be attending the meetings at Coolidge and will continue to follow this process closely.

by DC Tax payer on Mar 29, 2014 9:37 am • linkreport

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