One charter pleads for the right to give neighborhood kids a preference in admissions, with Henderson's apparent support

Should some charter schools be able to decide for themselves whether to give a preference to applicants who live in their neighborhood? The leaders of at least one DC charter think so, and the DCPS Chancellor seems to agree.

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At a DC Council hearing last month on proposed new boundaries and feeder patterns, two top officials at a highly ranked charter school in Ward 8 pleaded for a change in the law that would allow them to give an admissions preference to families who live nearby.

Later at the same hearing, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson expressed surprise at the charter school's stance, given the general lack of enthusiasm for such a change in the charter sector, and seemed supportive of its plea. She also connected the issue to the charter community's recent opposition to joint DCPS-charter planning. Charters have said such planning would infringe on their autonomy.

"If that's not autonomy—a school saying I would like to be able to serve neighborhood kids," Henderson said in exasperation, "then what is autonomy?"

Under current law, charter schools must admit any child who applies and must hold a lottery if there are more applicants than seats. A task force that considered the neighborhood preference issue two years ago recommended against it, saying it might exclude low-income children in Wards 7 and 8 from high-performing charters elsewhere in the District.

For example, if highly sought-after charter schools in gentrifying areas, such as the vastly oversubscribed Two Rivers, exercised a neighborhood preference, low-income applicants from other areas would be shut out.

The task force did consider allowing individual charters the option of adopting a neighborhood preference, as Eagle Academy wants to do, provided that it would be "educationally advantageous to the city as a whole" and would not harm "disadvantaged populations." But no charter leaders indicated strong support for that idea, and the task force didn't recommend it.

In fact, Eagle Academy's founder, Cassandra Pinkney, was one of two charter leaders who spoke against neighborhood preference when the task force held a public hearing. But she says her understanding was that the task force was only considering a mandatory neighborhood preference rather than an optional one.

"You cannot require charters to be neighborhood schools, because some are specialized," said Joe Smith, Eagle Academy's chief operating and chief financial officer, in an interview. "We are a community school, so for our own school it would be very important to set aside a number of seats for kids in the neighborhood."

But it's not clear how many other charters feel the same way. When Smith testified at the DC Council hearing, he acknowledged that the school's position was "a little heretical."

Eagle Academy isn't typical

Eagle Academy, which serves 3-year-olds through 3rd-graders, is in an anomalous position. Most charters in low-income locations already draw largely from their neighborhoods, so a neighborhood preference might not make much difference. In 2012, the neighborhood preference task force found that over half the charter students attending schools in Wards 7 and 8 go to schools within their own wards.

But recently, according to Smith, some parents from affluent Ward 3 have begun enrolling their children at Eagle Academy's Ward 8 campus, drawn by its innovative technology program and award-winning new building. Meanwhile, the school has to turn many neighborhood applicants away.

While the number from Ward 3 is small—fewer than 20 children out of over 700 enrolled—the school wants to ensure that it primarily serves students from the surrounding low-income community.

Still, some charters in predominantly low-income neighborhoods oppose the idea of allowing charters a neighborhood preference option. That's the view of Diane Cottman, executive director of Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), a school near Military Road and 13th Streets NW that is popular with middle-class parents from around the District.

She acknowledged that LAMB staff members find it difficult to turn away parents from the neighborhood who come in hoping to enroll their children, not realizing there were application deadlines and a lottery that they missed.

"In my heart of hearts," Cottman said, "I'd say yes, we might want to reserve 10 or 15% of our slots" for neighborhood kids.

But, she continued, "the devil is in the details." She questioned how a neighborhood would be defined, and what would happen with a "hardship case" a block outside the boundary. She also said that some bilingual schools, like hers, might prefer the option of a preference for children who speak languages other than English, and that other charters might lobby for other kinds of preferences.

"Once you inject preference," she said, "it opens a wide array of what people would like to include."

Those kinds of questions appear to have kept change at bay. Councilmember David Grosso introduced a bill last year that would have allowed new charters to give a preference to neighborhood children, but it hasn't gone anywhere.

And a spokesman for Councilmember David Catania, chair of the education committee, echoed Cottman's concern that the neighborhood preference issue was complex.

"We would need just as thorough an analysis of it as any other issue, like boundaries and feeder patterns," said Brendan Williams-Kief, adding that Catania has been talking to "lots of different folks" about the idea and is "willing to have conversations about it."

DCPS's position

You might expect DCPS to oppose allowing a neighborhood preference for charters. After all, a charter that draws primarily from its neighborhood could lure away students from a DCPS school in the same area, leaving the DCPS school underenrolled.

But Henderson's impassioned statement at last month's Council hearing indicated that she supports the idea, at least in some cases. (To watch that part of her testimony, click here. It appears about 5 hours and 35 minutes into the hearing.)

A DCPS spokesperson said that a neighborhood preference for charters would "require lots of planning and lots of conversation." But Henderson is particularly interested in a certain kind of preference: she wants a charter that takes over a building vacated by a closed DCPS school to be able to guarantee admission to the DCPS school's former students.

That's not allowed under current law, a problem that has derailed Henderson's plan to have a high-performing charter in Ward 8 take over a struggling DCPS elementary school, Malcolm X. Still, that proposal appears to have a better chance of becoming a reality than the kind of preference Eagle Academy would like to exercise.

True, guaranteeing slots for students from a closed DCPS school is a more pressing need than a general neighborhood preference. And it would encourage the kind of DCPS-charter collaboration that could lead to better outcomes for many students.

But, as Henderson said in her DC Council testimony, it's hard to see why Eagle Academy shouldn't be allowed to give priority to low-income kids in its neighborhood, even if—or perhaps especially if—it's the only charter that wants to do so.

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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I would wholeheartedly support the move to allow charters who take over a closed DCPS building the ability to give preference to neighborhood children. I live in Edgewood, near the former Shaed Elementary that is currently being renovated for use by the Inspired Teaching and Lee Montessori charters, and I have seen this dynamic at play in my own neighborhood.

During the community meetings about the proposed reuse of the Shaed building, neighbors were almost in complete agreement that they wanted some kind of community use of the site (preferably a new rec center, or at least access to a meeting room for community use). What they also agreed on was that it would be much better if children who actually lived in a neighborhood could attend the bright and shiny new charter coming in the fall.

While the renovation of the building is not free - I believe the renovation funding is a mix of city funds and private donations - the fact that it exists in the first place, however dilapidated it had become, is a huge public subsidy. Former DCPS schools are buildings that the charters don't have to build from scratch (merely renovate), and land they don't have to purchase. In a high-rent, land-poor city like DC, those are enormous benefits that were originally meant for the surrounding neighborhoods, not the entire District. Charters who take over former DCPS sites have an obligation to help return some of that subsidy they are receiving back to the neighborhoods for which they were originally intended.

by ndw_dc on Jul 17, 2014 1:49 pm • linkreport

Also, there is an different angle on the gentrification concern that could support neighborhood preference for charters. In the case of charters taking over former DCPS sites, not giving a neighborhood preference could be seen as a form of gentrification.

For example: A neighborhood that had its own dedicated DCPS elementary school for many years (perhaps decades) faces declining enrollment and DCPS eventually decides to close the school. At the same time that the school is closed, the neighborhood in general is undergoing gentrification as wealthier individuals and families move in. What had been seen before as a declining school and then as blight (i.e., the vacant building) is now seen as an asset and opportunity for charters looking for space to expand. The same forces of gentrification that attract wealthier households also attract charter schools looking for available space in "advantageous" sites.

For those long time residents in the neighborhood, it appears as if the city is taking away their long-time neighborhood school and replacing it with a charter. If this charter gives no preference to neighborhood children, it will also be a charter that they have pretty much zero realistic chance of attending and whose student body will, in all likelihood, consist of students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than their own children. Also, parents of these newly arrived charter students would not be irrational to start looking for places to live in the gentrifying neighborhood surrounding their children's school, perhaps contributing further still to displacement.

If the reason that charters cannot give neighborhood preference is one of equity, then the policy needs to be re-examined. It may make sense to forbid neighborhood preference for well established or specialty charters in wealthy neighborhoods, but in lower-income or gentrifying neighborhoods where charters are taking over former DCPS schools, then forbidding neighborhood preference may actually contribute to rather than ameliorate gentrification.

by ndw_dc on Jul 17, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

but by the same token couldn't neighborhood preference increase gentrification since families would move to the areas where the charters granting neighborhood preference were located?

by sbc on Jul 17, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

sbc -- You make an interesting point. It reminds me of what's going on in San Francisco right now (see Basically, SF has a city-wide lottery system for student assignment -- along the lines of the most extreme version of the first round of DC boundary proposals, which of course got shot down. In SF, you get a preference in the lottery if you live in a census tract that has low test scores. That's called a Census Tract Integration Preference (CTIP). Here's what's happened, according to the story:

"Instead of creating a big melting pot in schools, a CTIP address has become a golden ticket for families who wanted to attend the city's most popular schools, Norton said. It has also created demand for housing in CTIP areas, with real estate agents promoting those neighborhoods and people lying about their address to get an advantage.

And even if a family living in a CTIP area were wealthy, it would not matter - they would still get the same high-priority status as someone living in poverty."

But in areas that aren't yet gentrifying, a neighborhood preference for a desirable charter (like Eagle Academy) could conceivably result in making a neighborhood more socioeconomically diverse without driving out low-income residents, at least in the short-term.

by Natalie on Jul 17, 2014 4:04 pm • linkreport

Kids being too far from their schools discourages their involvement, and that of their parents, and may takes hours of their time out of their day.
That's not exaggeration - it's not atypical for semi-urban bused students to wait around a half hour for a bus that takes another 40 minutes to arrive at school, then deal with similar on the way home. 2 1/2 hours lost every day when they could be walking somewhere for around 15 minutes.

Stop bringing the focus on preventing "gentrification" and discuss what's good for students - generally waiting around for hours on a bus every day or for one to arrive - isn't.

by asffa on Jul 19, 2014 10:50 pm • linkreport


I agree that we should be focusing primarily on what is good for students. But please also remember that housing policy and education policy are very, very closely related. It's easy to simply say "focus on the students!" while ignoring the fact that non-education related policies can help/hurt their educational outcomes just as easily.

by ndw_dc on Jul 21, 2014 10:33 am • linkreport

Attending school during the weekdays coincides with the rush hours. What is semi-urban? Is that a new coded word for some new type of gentrifier? Why wait for half and hour for bus...when schedules are pretty accurate. Maybe it is the new math but a 40-minute commute in the morning and evening does not add up to 2 1/2 hours. The semi-suburban kids of PG, Fairfax and Montgomery county are waiting and commuting by yellow school busses are they any worst off?

by Exaggerating aren't we on Jul 21, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

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