The excellent student-journalists at Wilson High School last year broke the story that Wilson would not be accepting any students for the 2012-2013 school year from outside its boundaries or from outside its three public feeder schools. Now, they are writing about the effort to redraw the boundaries. The following articles have been reprinted, with permission, from the December 13th issue of The Beacon.
by Claire Parker
Beacon managing editor/news editor
The DC public school system will soon undergo the biggest transformation it has experienced in several decades. Deputy Mayor of Education Abigail Smith launched a school assignment revision process in October, which, once completed, will result in new boundaries and feeder patterns for the 2015-2016 school year.
D.C.’s school assignment policies, which include boundaries and feeder patterns, have not changed in over 40 years. The city, though, is a different story. DC’s population, demographics, and neighborhoods have changed dramatically. In addition, the emergence of the charter sector, multiple rounds of school closures, and recent modernizations have contributed to a school landscape that looks markedly different than it did several decades ago. Many schools throughout the city are underpopulated and underutilized, while Ward 3 schools Wilson and Deal are over capacity. Wilson’s boundary alone covers 40% of the landmass of the city.
“You can’t go forever without changing boundaries, because that’s not sustainable,” said Matthew Frumin, a Wilson parent and member of the recently-established DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment.
[quote_right]Discussions of boundaries and student assignment have dredged up issues of geography, race, and socioeconomics.[/quote_right]However, while education policy-makers, parents, and community members alike agree that changing the student assignment process is essential, how these changes should take place and what they should encompass has prompted debate and controversy.
The student assignment revision process is an initiative by the Deputy Mayor of Education, Abigail Smith. Smith’s office established the 20-member DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, which will meet monthly, listen to communities around DC, and develop a proposal for a revised student assignment process, which could encompass new boundaries, feeder patterns and a means of better integrating the charter and traditional public systems. According to Smith, members were “selected for the knowledge and experience they bring to the table,” rather than to represent each ward. The committee consists of 15 community representatives and four DC agency representatives, with a six person technical team to assist them.
Frumin said “I’m one of 20 people on this committee, and part of what everyone has to do at the beginning is park your pre-conceived ideas at least for a while, and be a part of discussing all the issues and get a sense of differing views, and try to come up together with a solution that accomplishes the core goals.”
In addition to the Advisory Committee, any DC resident could sign up to attend focus groups in November and December to share their input. Community members can also sign up for working groups representing different areas of the city, which will work on developing policy in the spring. Wilson community members are eligible to participate in the Center City and Upper Northwest/Northeast working groups. Wilson PTSO president Ruth Ernst said the organization is publicizing opportunities for involvement and may organize meetings in an attempt to get Wilson parents’ input.
However, some DC residents have complained about a lack of transparency in the process. Candace Rhett, a public witness at a November 15th DC Council hearing on the process, shared many Ward 7 residents’ concern that her ward is underrepresented in the advisory council. She also expressed concerns that community members were not given an opportunity to weigh in on who they felt should represent them on the committee. Smith responded that she would take concerns about the Committee into consideration, and may add members to the committee.
Smith said, “We have been very intentional about creating a process that allows for extensive public input, so that the school choice and school assignment policies we ultimately adopt will result in greater clarity, stability, and continuity for families.”
Committee members Frumin and Cathy Reilly, who heads the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators (S.H.A.P.P.E.), feel that the process involves sufficient public consultation. “The advisory committee; focus groups, working groups and community meetings represent more transparency than we have had in recent memory on policy issues,” said Reilly. Frumin says “I am reaching out to anyone and everyone, and I’m willing to talk with people across the city.”
Discussions of boundaries and student assignment have dredged up issues of geography, race, and socioeconomics. Public witnesses and councilmembers at the November 15th hearing commented on disparities in quality between schools West and East of Rock Creek Park. Ward 3 councilmember Mary Cheh said “The school boundary issue is very sensitive – it’s politically sensitive, it’s racially sensitive, it’s sensitive in terms of income groups, along every sort of metric you can think of.”
Rhett warned of a city divided along racial lines. “We [Ward 7 residents] feel like we’re moving towards separate and unequal,” she said. “We have been sending our children to other wards to get a quality education.”
David Goldberg, another public witness, argued that concentrating the city’s affluent population in upper Northwest schools is harmful to the system. Goldberg and several councilmembers agreed on the importance of diversity in DC schools.
“The last thing we want to do is split our city down Rock Creek Park,” said Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser.
The original article goes into more detail on the process and its supporters and detractors. It can be found here.
The December 13th issue of The Beacon also included this editorial:
Break Boundaries To Support DiversityWilson’s changing racial and socioeconomic demographics have been a hot topic at the school for the past decade. The conversation will only become more intense when boundary changes being developed by the Deputy Mayor of Education’s Advisory Committee are released this spring.
An increase in more affluent and often white upper Northwest families and Wilson’s recent renovation, combined with the slow elimination of out-of-boundary students admitted into the school, have prompted some parents who would previously have sent children to private schools to consider a cheaper alternative with comparable academics. This shift caused the traditional demographics of Wilson to begin to change in potentially drastic ways, and this change will be amplified by the upcoming boundary changes.
When boundaries and demographics shift, we must maintain the unique Wilson identity we know, which is built on diversity, inclusion, open-mindedness, and awareness of our city and our community. As Principal Cahall reminds us in our student planner, we seek to exemplify “the model urban high school in the United States,” with a mission to “create unity from our diversity.” We are worried that when boundaries change, Wilson will become a predominantly white, upper-income school.
We acknowledge that boundary change will be necessary and the boundaries may need to shrink, but we want an explicit way for students’ opinions on these changes to be heard. We urge the advisory committee to make preserving diversity, both racial and socioeconomic, their top priority. Wilson’s students’ wide range of backgrounds and experiences creates a vibrant school community and a dynamic learning environment. It prompts interesting discussion in the classroom, unlikely interactions, and important friendships.
Diversity is an essential value of every DCPS school, not just Wilson. In order to produce well-educated students who understand the world around them and are open to different perspectives, schools must continue to cultivate diversity.
Matthew Frumin, a Wilson parent and member of the Advisory Committee, believes that in order for Wilson to maintain its quality, the Wilson community needs to actively work to boost the quality of other schools. We “should be supporting [other schools] in spirit and supporting them politically, so it’s not just everyone out there trying to solve their own issues, but so it’s actually people from around the city supporting each other so we have a successful system in all parts of the city.”
We agree completely. It is our duty as Wilson students to support and advocate for other schools, and to be involved in this boundary change process. By making other schools better, students do not have to fight to go to Wilson and our hallways need not be packed. Helping other schools will also help boost diversity throughout the whole city by making it realistic and possible for families who previously only considered Wilson an option to consider other schools as well.
This not only ensures the quality of our own high school experience, but extends it to students across D.C. It will allow us to achieve our common goal: a quality education for everyone in the city.
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