School boundary review, part 2: Parents at two Northwest DC schools want to keep current boundaries

As a committee works to redesign DC's school assignment policies, some parents who are happy with the status quo are urging caution.

Bancroft Elementary. Photo from DCPS website.

In yesterday's post we looked at issues the Advisory Committee on Student Assignment is grappling with as it reviews school boundaries and feeder patterns, which haven't been overhauled since 1968. Today we'll look at two groups affiliated with schools in Northwest DC that like the attendance zones they're in and don't want them to change.

One group is made up of parents and prospective parents at Bancroft Elementary in Mt. Pleasant. The other is affiliated with Lafayette Elementary in Chevy Chase DC. Both have sent letters to the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) and other DC officials expressing their hope that the schools' current boundary and feeder patterns will be maintained. The DME, Abigail Smith, is in charge of the boundary overhaul process.

Both Bancroft and Lafayette currently feed into Deal Middle School and Wilson High School in Ward 3. Bancroft students also have the choice of attending the Columbia Heights Education Campus, but few do so.

The Mt. Pleasant Family Association sent its letter about Bancroft, with 137 signatures, earlier this month. The letter said that many young families move to the area in part because of its "access to excellent schools," and predicted those families would go elsewhere if the feeder pattern changed.

Josh Louria, a spokesperson for the group, said that a majority of its members are prospective Bancroft parents like himself, since the DME's office has said that current students would be exempt from a change in policy.

Lafayette letter has 700 signatures

The Lafayette School Boundary Working Group has about 700 signatures on its letter, which the group originally sent to both Mayor Vincent Gray and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson in May 2013, when DCPS was in charge of the review process. Leadership of the process was later transferred to the DME's office, and the group has since sent their letter directly to that office twice.

The letter speaks of the "central role" that Deal and Wilson "have long played in our community's history and daily life." The group said it hopes those conducting the review will uphold "the principles of proximity and community that have long guided" enrollment rules in DC.

Claudia Lujan, a senior policy advisor to the DME, said her office and the advisory committee "are considering all the issues raised by these communities, as we are doing with the proposals and petitions we have received from across the city."

Jenny Backus, a spokesperson for the Lafayette group, said it has been meeting for about a year and a half and has a core group of about 35 people, with several hundred attending larger meetings. About half are current parents at the school and half are prospective ones. Community members and alumni of the schools have also signed the letter.

Backus said that parents feel confused about the goals of the boundary review. She and others from the community have participated in focus groups led by the DME's office, and she said the discussions have largely addressed qualitative issues, like what parents value in a school, rather than boundaries per se.

Both Backus and Louria also said the process feels rushed, and the fact that it's happening with a mayoral election looming is another source of concern. And both said that DCPS should improve schools across the District before engaging in the process of redrawing boundaries.

"It seems like it's being proposed as a way to improve schools elsewhere," Backus said.

Diversity and school boundaries

Some argue that one way to improve weaker schools, most of which are also high-poverty, is to increase the number of middle-class families attending them. But Louria said that middle-class parents at Bancroft "need DCPS to meet them halfway." If the District provided more help to high-poverty schools, he said, "folks wouldn't feel that the school's improvement would be all on their backs."

The issue of diversity is one that frequently comes up in boundary review discussions. As more neighborhood parents send their kids to Ward 3 schools, the out-of-boundary students, who are generally less affluent and are more likely to be racial minorities, are being squeezed out.

Keeping Bancroft, which is 73% Hispanic and 71% low-income, within the Deal and Wilson boundaries would at least help ensure some diversity there. Lafayette is geographically closer, but its population is 73% white and only 7% low income.

Some have suggested that a proportion of slots at Deal and Wilson should be reserved for out-of-bounds students. But Louria says Bancroft parents wouldn't want to have to take their chances in a lottery. And Backus says that Lafayette parents value diversity, but that "everyone wants proximity to good schools," including parents in other wards.

"We don't want the city to become divided in this process," Backus said. "We want to come together to make all the schools stronger, but we have questions about whether drawing lines is the way to do that."

Overcrowding at Wilson

One immutable fact is that Wilson, whose boundaries include almost half of DC, is seriously overcrowded. Recently modernized to accommodate 1,550 students, it currently houses almost 1700.

But Louria and Backus say there are other solutions that wouldn't require their schools to be zoned out of Deal and Wilson. One that both mentioned was turning the building that now houses Duke Ellington High School of the Arts in Georgetown back into a neighborhood high school. That would relieve some of the pressure on Wilson.

That proposal has been floated for the last several years. Some say it would make sense to put a magnet school like Ellington in a more central location and closer to Metro.

Louria and Backus seem to feel that idea isn't on the advisory committee's table (although committee members frequently say that indeed everything is). But they may be surprised.

"Some people are anxious about things they might not need to be anxious about," said Matthew Frumin, a member of the committee. "And some people have yet to focus on options that if they did might make them anxious."

He says "the real debate and discussion will begin after April 5th," when the committee will unveil several draft scenarios for student assignment. At that point, Frumin says, people will "have something much more concrete to react to."

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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Could you slow down a little on pushing the controlled choice model. Kahlenberg and Petrelli are both high-SES families who live in Bethesda. Petrelli says he moved to Bethesda to get good educational opportunities for his kids. They won't practice what they preach.

Cambridge is NOT Washington, DC. Population 100K. 75% of population has college degree or higher.
School population is much smaller than DC (6,300). Racial profile of the schools very different (38% white, 29% black, 12% Asian, 13% Hispanic). Only one public high school.

Cambridge school district data can be found

Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity (2013-14)
Race % of District % of State
African American 28.8 8.7
Asian 12.2 6.1
Hispanic 13.9 17.0
Native American 0.5 0.2
White 38.0 64.9
Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander 0.2 0.1
Multi-Race, Non-Hispanic 6.3 2.9

Limited English Proficient % 6.0 7.6
Special Education % 19.2 16.8
Low Income % 46.7 38.0

Enrollment by Gender (2013-14)
District State
Male 3,218 489,422
Female 3,143 466,317
Total 6,361 955,739

by Data on Mar 28, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

This is a debate about power and privilege. One part of the city has "solved" the education crisis in a way that works great for them, but doesn't for anyone else. Either they have the power to protect those privileges or they don't. I suspect they do, so not sure there's really much to discuss.

by 11luke on Mar 28, 2014 12:35 pm • linkreport

Wait to the tailspin starts with Shepherd ES that current feeds to Deal MS. There is going to be so SERIOUS whining about any there was the last time around.

by Some Ideas on Mar 28, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

Data--I'm aware of the differences between DC and Cambridge. In fact I was just telling someone else about them. So I'm certainly not "pushing" controlled choice as a city wide policy here, and neither are Petrilli et al. In any event, others are discussing this, so I think it's relevant.

by Natalie on Mar 28, 2014 1:14 pm • linkreport

It is not very honest to say that Petrilli is not pushing controlled choice:, which Petrilli co-authored, includes the line "The first strategy we propose is to create controlled-choice zones in strategic parts of the city (namely, Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Dupont/Logan Circle and Petworth)."

Maybe you're drawing a distinction about whether this is a "city-wide" policy. Petrilli admittedly isn't saying the whole District should move to controlled choice...though the neighborhoods he mentions do cover a pretty big swath of the city. But honestly I think controlled choice makes much LESS sense when you do it in isolated pockets:

a) if the goal is to mix rich and poor kids, why leave out the richest and poorest?

b) If you do controlled choice over the whole district it is harder for families to avoid it by moving away (it's arguably harder to move across state lines) or switch to charters (there are no charters in Ward 3 and there wouldn't be enough charter seats for all the kids anyway).

Now this is not to say that I think controlled choice should be implemented city-wide. I don't like the idea (it also really stinks for folks who move in after the lottery and get a 100% chance of being stuck in the least-desirable school in the cluster for at least a year) and don't want it at all. But if you're going to do it, why half-ass it?

A different option (I'm not saying it's flawless, but better) would be to cluster schools so for example one serves PK3 and PK4, one does K-2, and one does 3-5. It would allow for more diversity in each school and since each grade would be bigger there could be more opportunities (enrichment, remediation, sports teams, etc.).

by sbc on Mar 28, 2014 1:29 pm • linkreport

Controlled choice is little more than an form of social engineering heralded by pseudo experts who don't know the first thing about DCPS, with the apparent exception that they don't like the fact Brent has become majority IB, majority white and majority high SES. Rather than focusing on finding innovative ways to improve underenrolled and underperforming schools by addressing underlying social issues like poverty, Petrilli and his suburban colleagues seemingly want to throw out the baby with the bath water, thus ensuring that all Capitol Hill schools will backslide into the same old pool of mediocrity. Academic progress comes at a cost, mostly underwritten by substantial parent contributions to the PTA. Simply adding a few high SES students to the mix is not going to magically transform Miner or bring Payne anywhere close to capacity. The fact the Deputy Mayor for Education has not affirmatively addressed the pros and cons of a controlled choice scenario does not bode well for anyone.

by DisgruntledInDC on Mar 28, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport


The differences between Cambridge, MA and DC are not noted in any of the postings or links to Kahlenberg's study on controlled choice that I have seen on GGE. So it's not clear to the reader when you link to the Kahlenberg articles as a possible solution to a DC problem that his research isn't applicable to DC's situation.

Here are some links which compare DC and Cambridge school districts (using 2000 census data). Since the Cambridge controlled choice has been around since 2000 is the year that CDS moved to economic indicators (from recently prohibited race) the 2000 data are appropriate to determine the baseline where controlled choice on SES is implemented.

It would be great if you could add a link to these data when linking to other controlled choice references as that would make clear the different situations.

DC vs. Cambridge (income, educational attainment)


DC vs. Cambridge by race (including breakout by age under 18)

Key take-aways. Cambridge was majority white, highly educated and rich. This does not match the DC population in 2000 or since.

Population under 18 by race/ethnicity
Race, DC #, % Cambridge #, %

Total Population Under 18 114,992 20.1* 13,447 13.3*
Hispanic or Latino 11,428 9.9 1,717 12.8
Non Hispanic or Latino 103,564 90.1 11,730 87.2
Population of one race 101,405 88.2 10,756 80.0
White alone 13,695 11.9 6,281 46.7
Black or African American alone 85,401 74.3 3,045 22.6
Asian alone 1,721 1.5 1,203 8.9

sorry about the formatting

by Data on Mar 28, 2014 4:28 pm • linkreport

SBC - You are correct that I was drawing a distinction between advocating for controlled choice city-wide in DC and advocating for it in certain areas that are already demographically diverse. Petrilli et al have been advocating for the latter, not the former. I'm not really advocating for it at all -- I just think it's worth discussing (but not city-wide, again, just in some selected diverse areas).

Data - Thank you for the suggestion that we link to the data about Cambridge, but again, I don't think it's relevant unless someone is proposing controlled choice for DC as a whole. Please note that this post doesn't even mention controlled choice, by the way. Yes, I linked to an article by Kahlenberg, but only for the proposition that bringing middle class parents into a struggling school (not necessarily by means of controlled choice) is one way of improving it. I don't think he even mentions controlled choice in that article.

We have, indeed, run one post that proposed a controlled choice system city-wide, but I didn't write it (Ken Archer did). In fact, if you check the comments, you'll find that the first one is from me, saying that I didn't think it could work city-wide. Not everything that is posted on this blog reflects my personal views.

by Natalie on Mar 28, 2014 5:56 pm • linkreport

Why do we even have school boundaries? If a school is successful, why not let it just duplicate itself to meet demand?

large urban middle and upper schools are already dividing themselves, or creating "academies" so the template is already there.

who is really being helped by forcing kids to attend their failing neighborhood elementary school, instead of giving them an opportunity to go to a successful existing school a little bit farther away?

by no more boundaries on Mar 29, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

@no more boundaries:

The logic is that the system benefits when parents invest in their school. Parents are more likely to invest in the school if they are confident that their children will be allowed to attend. Hence policies like boundaries and sibling preference.

When there is scarcity, however, a tension develops between fairness and predictability. If all the schools are more or less comparable, it doesn't matter which school you're assigned to. But that's not the case in DC, where there are a small number of very desirable schools and a large number of not-so-desirable schools. In DCPS there are 129 schools, and there are only about a dozen that don't accept every student that applies. Those are the only schools for which boundaries are meaningful, and those are the schools that the redistricting process revolves around.

by contrarian on Mar 30, 2014 11:43 pm • linkreport

I think you're mischaracterizing what the Bancroft parents are asking for. Bancroft is 50% out-of-boundary students, the boundaries of the school aren't a big determinant of the school makeup. What Bancroft parents are worried about is that their school may no longer feed Deal and Wilson -- which is what everyone who feeds Deal or Wilson is worried about. If you're out-of-boundary at a Deal feeder, you're also worried that the automatic right for OOB kids to continue to Deal and Wilson might be on the table.

Finally, you write "Josh Louria, a spokesperson for the group, said that a majority of its members are prospective Bancroft parents like himself, since the DME's office has said that current students would be exempt from a change in policy." That's a serious mischaracterization of what the DME has been saying. What she's saying is that there will be "significant grandfathering," but no detail as to exactly what that means. It's hard to believe that it's going to be a complete exemption for current students -- would someone who lotteried into pre-K tomorrow be guaranteed a spot at Wilson through 2030?

There's a tension in grandfathering, between minimizing disruption and between delaying needed changes. If grandfathering has the effect of postponing change, it creates the possibility of giving opponents of change time to mobilize and reverse it.

by contrarian on Mar 30, 2014 11:53 pm • linkreport

there are a small number of very desirable schools and a large number of not-so-desirable schools.

And to make things more difficult, the chief reason - by a wide margin - those schools are desirable is because of the student population. And since the purpose of boundary changes is to affect the student population, the whole process is fraught with peril.

by dcd on Mar 31, 2014 8:22 am • linkreport

No school boundaries is the San Francisco system. Ask any (now probably former public) school parent how that has turned out!

by Alf on Mar 31, 2014 11:22 am • linkreport

there are a small number of very desirable schools and a large number of not-so-desirable schools.
And to make things more difficult, the chief reason - by a wide margin - those schools are desirable is because of the student population.

Equitable distribution, retention and in-service training of high quality teachers, programming, well equipped and maintained facilities, effective principals, early intervention for struggling learners, strong SPED, and many other factors also make the "desirable" schools what they are, not just their wealthy students. These basics of a rigorous education too often are funded by a rich school's PTO, but it doesn't need to be that way. The higher achieving school systems worldwide have proved that. When DCPS catches on to that, the issue of SES integration will be less fraught because the detrimental effects of low SES will be much more effectively ameliorated in the school environment. It can be done; we're just not doing it yet.

by publicschoolmom on Apr 3, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

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