In Ward 6, parents didn’t rely on the government. They knew their needs and created their own plan for satisfying them. Later, after they were organized, they approached DCPS.
Look at the formula from 2009. DCPS’ decision to close a neighborhood middle school suddenly had locals anxious about the system’s ability to educate older kids, says Wells. They took a survey and began drafting a statement of needs. One Tuesday night during Snowmageddon, they hammered out the final details. They presented their plan for Capitol Hill middle schools to Rhee in March 2010.
“I was very impressed,” says Rhee, who now heads the national nonprofit StudentsFirst. “The other thing that superimpressed me: They didn’t say, ‘It’s our way or the highway.’”
Less than six months after receiving the Ward 6 parents’ blueprint, DCPS formally accepted the middle school plan. It includes, among other things, the creation of a sixth-grade academy at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and an International Baccalaureate program at Eliot-Hine. “The community itself provided so much capacity,” says Rhee. “To have it happen without a lot from DCPS created a better dynamic.”
“If we hadn’t done [the plan], I don’t think DCPS would have decided to have an IB program at Eliot-Hine,” says Wells. “It’s created a lot of energy and excitement.”
So far, Wells says, she’s measuring progress by the expanded “educational opportunities available within DCPS, such as Montessori, language immersion, the quality of teachers and principles, and the number of families choosing to invest in their neighborhood public schools,” rather than test scores. And yes, the improved options came on the back of a local economy that saw housing values shoot up and scores of well-off, well-educated parents move to the neighborhood. But those newcomers improved the schools for more children than just their own. “These people in Ward 6 sat down at a table because this was about their kids,” says Henderson. “They went to meetings and started to realize we have some of the same hopes and dreams. There are huge collateral benefits when that happens.”
“We hope we can get them talking to Ward 5 people,” Henderson adds. I hope so, too. But I have my doubts.
It’s no secret that the down economy has hit D.C. hardest in Wards 5, 7, and 8. But there’s the possibility that the recession will bring at least one positive, if unintended, consequence: With fewer people able to pay the freight for private school, more parents will be forced to keep their kids in their neighborhood schools. And as recession-affected parents stick with local public schools and charters, they’ll further reduce the number of out-of-boundary slots available. (The city is also about to undertake a major new study seeking to link school capacity with neighborhood needs.)
“There is a burgeoning group of parents who look like Ward 6 and are starting reinvest in neighborhood schools,” says Henderson. “Economics have driven middle-class black people to figure out other options and they are looking out across the feeder pattern.”
“Ward 5 has to reorient itself,” says Councilmember Wells. “If it can think more entrepreneurial, more innovative, it has the greatest opportunity to replicate what happened in Ward 6.”
But if more established parents like Zapata and Jones can’t galvanize and organize, without DCPS’ assistance, there may be others who can. Young black professionals are arriving to communities east of the Anacostia River and even Brookland in Ward 5, where housing prices are still fairly affordable. “I got an email out of the blue from a woman who lives in Ward 5,” says Suzanne Wells. “She doesn’t even have children, but she’s getting started early.”
Maybe the hope for predominantly African American neighborhood schools is with the outliers. Bring them on.