by Marlene Berlin
The new school boundary policy changes more than boundaries. It changes what has been highly valued in the school system – choice.
School choice was the rallying cry for supporters of charter schools, but choice was actually in play well before charters arrived in the District in the mid-1990s. As white middle class families and then black middle class families fled the DC public school system in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, there was plenty of room in most schools for out-of-boundary students. Schools and parents took advantage of this situation, and schools across the city accepted out-of-boundary students through informal decisions by principals. Over the years, a more formal and systematic process evolved into the lottery system.
But choice, it seems, can only go so far. The student assignment and school boundaries review launched last year shifted the focus from choice to the ideal of the quality neighborhood school. One of the first proposals to come out of the process would have eliminated “matter of right” middle and high schools. There would have been no more feeder school patterns. Where your child went to elementary school would determine nothing.
The boundaries advisory panel may have had good intentions, seeing it as a way to level the playing field in a city where socioeconomic class and race can determine where one lives, and in most cases, where one goes to public school. This was also a risky strategy, for it could chase the middle class families and their tax dollars into the suburbs. Many vocal parents went ballistic.
So the advisory council decided instead to promote the value of a quality neighborhood schools, which Mayor Gray accepted. Thus, school assignment will become determined even more by where you live.
Is this a realistic policy?
As of September 2012, only 25% of DC’s public school students attended their neighborhood or in-boundary schools, 23% were out-of-boundary students in DCPS and 42% were in charter schools (OSSE data).
Also, we cannot snap our fingers and have quality neighborhood schools. DCPS does not have a good track record of turning around schools, which it has tried to do innumerable times over the decades without a whole lot of success. That is a main reason charter schools have succeeded here.
Even the schools that make great strides face difficulties in getting wary parents on board. Greater Greater Education’s Natalie Wexler wrote recently about Eastern High School’s years-long effort to change and attract middle class families from nearby Capitol Hill. The program and test scores have improved, but greater in-boundary enrollment has not been the response.
Murch: An out-of-boundary case study
Let’s take a look at how choice played out in one of our local schools. In 1994, when my oldest daughter was in fourth grade at Murch, the principal knew the next year’s fifth grade enrollment would fall to the extent that she could not maintain three classes for that grade. Principal Gill knew that she needed to keep the school’s enrollment at around 500 to maintain our programs.
She, like other principals facing falling enrollment in Ward 3, started recruiting out-of-boundary students. As word spread, parents from other parts of the city informally requested out-of-boundary slots. While my daughters were at Murch, the school became increasingly more diverse, both from the increase in out-of-boundary students and the international students of families attached to embassies. For the most part, parents who had chosen Murch over private school welcomed the change in diversity.
For quite a long time principals were in charge of this informal process. A friend of mine who lived in the Logan Circle area wanted to get her son into Murch. I told her to write to the principal, and I also wrote to the principal. Her son got into Eaton, not her top choice, but better than the local school, where she had found broken glass, used condoms and broken needles on the playground. My friend would have worked with other parents in her area to make the school better, but there were none with the time and financial resources to devote to improving the school.
How choice transformed the school system
But the out-of-boundary students weren’t all coming to Ward 3 schools. In the 1990s, Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, analyzed the demographics for the first DCPS school modernization plan. She found that the system had significant numbers of out-of-boundary students in schools across the city.
Another shift in student assignment and demand came when when charter schools arrived in DC in 1996. They’ve been very successful in capturing dissatisfied parents in other wards of this city.
A couple of other changes in the out-of-boundary process happened in the 1990s and the early 2000s. A formal lottery process for out-of-boundary students was instituted for all schools. At first, out-of-boundary students did not have the right to become part of the feeder school system. They had to apply to the middle and senior high schools in-boundary classmates automatically qualified for. This changed in the early 2000s when a “matter of right” policy was instituted. This meant that any student who got into a certain elementary schools, for instance Murch, maintained the right to attend Deal and Wilson.
Nearly half (47%) of Wilson High school’s student population today is out-of-boundary students. Starting two years ago, these were almost exclusively matter of right students, who gain access to a feeder elementary school or middle school through a lottery. It’s the same for Deal, with an out-of-boundary population of 30% who are predominantly matter of right rather than lottery students.
Making neighborhood schools work for the neighborhood
Neighborhood schools can and do become jewels of the system, but choice is still the key. In the past decade, some DCPS schools have been transformed by middle class households who’ve chosen to stay and support their neighborhood school instead of leaving for the suburbs when their children reached school age. Ross Elementary is one such school in Dupont Circle. The school has achieved a very diverse enrollment – 45% white, 22% black, 14% Hispanic/Latino (the majority of Ross students in the 80s), 11% multiple races, and 7% Asian. Its test scores are climbing and it is now over-enrolled, with 55% out-of-boundary students.
Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill is a similar story. A Murch parent who went to Brent to teach kindergarten about eight years ago related that over those years middle class parents made an investment in the school, and it has become very diverse, has great test scores, and is over-enrolled with 46% out-of-boundary students.
Given the new school boundaries policy, what impact will this have on choice and diversity, two strong values of our school system? When you look at the enrollments of schools feeding into Deal and Hardy, the diversity at Wilson will be coming from Hearst and Eaton, as well as Oyster-Adams which draws from Wards 2 and 3. Meanwhile, space for out-of-boundary students is vanishing at Murch, Lafayette and Janney, which are bursting with neighborhood kids.
We have the jewels of Ross and Brent with high performance and high diversity. Eaton Elementary and Hardy Middle School share the same characteristics and have room to grow. DCPS should protect and promote such success.
It is too late to turn back the tide of choice, which has a very strong grip on our system. And we need to foster as much diversity in our city as possible. What better way than through our schools?