City Desk

Why Do Other Parents Care Where I Send My Kid to School?

School
A little over a month ago, the Washington Post ran a map of how proposed boundary reforms would adjust various D.C. public schools’ feeder patterns, and my neighborhood erupted. The Petworth Parents email list was suddenly afire with messages from parents trying to kickstart coalitions and campaigns to keep their kids and homes in-boundary for in-demand schools like Powell Elementary, rather than Bruce-Monroe at Park View or Barnard or Truesdell or Raymond or fill-in-the-blank. Mothers on the playground literally wrung their hands while worrying over how the proposals could “change the character of our [strong, relatively gentrified elementary] school.” In most cases, these folks’ kids were already admitted and enrolled at the higher-performing schools. They were just concerned that the schools could weaken if the boundary shifts increased the percentage of less-wealthy students who had in-boundary rights to attend.

I’ve been watching it all with equal parts amusement and shock. My wife and I played the pre-K lottery because we can’t afford an apartment (let alone house) large enough for us and our two kids within the existing boundaries of any of D.C.’s handful of strong elementary schools. Since our in-boundary school is relatively weak, changes in the school boundaries don’t matter much for us. (The revised map DCPS put out last week in response to the reaction to the original proposal won’t do much to make weak schools stronger, either.)

My (nearly) 3-year-old son was admitted to our 11th choice in the lottery (which lets you rank up to 12)—a Ward 4 DCPS elementary school segregated by race and class. Nearly 100 percent of the students’ families qualify for free and reduced lunch. Nearly 100 percent of the students are African-American or Latino. While it wasn’t our first choice, we weren’t especially troubled—we included the school on our lottery list because we decided it was somewhere we would feel comfortable sending our (white, middle-class) kid. It wasn’t our optimal outcome, in other words, but perfectly fine.

So I was relatively satisfied with our school—until I had a few conversations with folks with kids going to more popular elementary schools in the neighborhood. Turns out they have really strong feelings about how important it is that we enroll at our assigned school. I thought this was weird, and I chafed a bit at the form the argument took: “Oh hey, we’re having a great DCPS experience over at Powell, so you’ll love this DCPS school that is not Powell. Also, charters are horrible and tools of the Koch brothers.”

Then one day, during a conversation with a smug, satisfied DCPS elementary school parent, it all clicked. MacFarland Middle School closed last year, and there’s been a concerted effort to pressure DCPS to renovate and replace it (and in fact, the new DCPS boundary proposal would do just that). Upper-middle-class Ward 4 parents with relatively strong DCPS elementary school assignments, either purchased via in-boundary property or won through the lottery, have this in mind when they’re begging parents assigned to relatively weak DCPS elementary schools to tough it out. Otherwise, their bargaining position is much weaker vis-a-vis the new middle school. They want an International Baccalaureate program and glitzy facilities and etc…but if there’s only one strong Ward 4 elementary school feeding the new middle school, it’s going to be harder to get DCPS to provide all that.

Demand for DCPS elementary schools varies considerably—and the lottery results roughly track student achievement. After this year’s lottery, Powell had 148 students on its 3-year-old pre-K waitlist. The data on nearby schools is telling: Bruce-Monroe Elementary had 47, West Education Campus had 41, Barnard Elementary had 23, Raymond Education Campus had 11, and Truesdell Education Campus had zero (with 11 unfilled seats). There’s a reason that President Barack Obama announced this year’s budget proposal at Powell and not Truesdell.

If middle-class families like mine stay ambivalent about our low-performing DCPS elementary schools while eyeing Ward 4’s top-notch charters, our fellow yuppies at Powell won’t have the critical mass to push the district into building a hot new middle school. They need lottery losers and relatively less affluent middle-class families to put up with DCPS’ weaker options in order to keep their relatively stronger position. They need families who look to be served relatively poorly by our elementary school option to stay in so that their families can retain their advantage. That way, their strong elementary school becomes a higher value commodity because it feeds into a strong middle school.

And, hoo boy, debates over this as-yet unformed middle school suffer from the same “separate but equal” dog whistle problem as the “change the character of our elementary school” line. Ward 4’s playgrounds are awash with proposals to set up a “multitrack” school with the aforementioned International Baccalaureate program and a “more vocationally oriented option.” Can you guess which track the white, wealthy parents want for their children? Can you guess which of these tracks would get more attention and resources from DCPS?

Their outreach continued through May. A few weeks ago, a group calling itself the Ward 4 Educational Alliance tweeted me (and three others): “#Ward4 parents: what would it take for families to invest in a new MS at MacFarland?”

“Strong elementary schools throughout Ward 4,” I replied.

And that about covers the disconnect (by the way, they didn’t respond). For parents like me, who struck out in the lottery and can’t afford the high mortgage hurdle of buying access to a great DCPS elementary school west of Rock Creek Park, a quality middle school is a second-order problem. My son would have to navigate eight years in a chronically low-performing elementary school before he’d benefit from any glitzy middle school programming. I don’t care if the middle school offers internationally themed dual-immersion Spanish-English curricula and locally sourced, homemade food in the cafeteria. I don’t care if it has a helipad, solar panels, a holistic wellness center, and a college placement office: We’ll worry about middle schools once we’re sure we’re staying through, say, kindergarten. The charter lottery and Montgomery County are ever-present temptations. Plenty of Ward 4 parents are interested in leaving DCPS—Ward 4’s Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School had 533 3-year-olds on its pre-K waitlist this year (note: LAMB also has a campus in Ward 5).

Ward 4’s middle school coordination problem offers some lessons for the school boundary fight, as well as the broader project of improving education in D.C. It’s going to be tough to get young families to unite around protecting existing in-boundary school privileges. After all, many middle- and low-income parents see boundaries as barriers: They prevent us from sending our kids to good schools nearby. By contrast, many parents with fewer resources see citywide lotteries and open enrollment as ways to access a quality education even if we can’t purchase a high-quality public education by means of a half-million dollar (or more!) mortgage. Yes, lotteries are frustrating—only about 60 percent of lottery participants wound up in one of their top three choices this year. Still, they offer more hope than an ironclad link between my paycheck and my children’s public schools. Whatever else these lotteries do, they give families of all classes a chance at enrolling at a school of their choice.

I research and write about public education for a living, and I’m far from confident that I know what parents like me—and my neighbors satisfied with their DCPS schools—should do about their various education situations. The ethics are complicated. But the empirics aren’t. My family’s educational needs and priorities scarcely overlap with these luckier parents. They’re concerned with building a new middle school—we’re worried about our elementary school situation.

That’s why the coming fights over neighborhood boundaries, access to quality schools, and elementary to secondary feeder patterns look as likely as anything to realign political coalitions throughout our ward—and the District.

While I understand these lucky parents’ anxieties, I’m still astonished to hear what so many ostensibly liberal folks have to say on these topics. It’s perhaps a bit tin-eared that they’re pressuring middle-class families like mine to push through our ineffective DCPS elementary schools to help them preserve their advantages. But when it comes to my kid, an ineffective school is a manageable frustration. While his parents can’t afford to purchase him a better public education in D.C., he’s still awash in privilege. When it comes to children from low-income families, an ineffective school is often an unavoidable catastrophe. That’s why it’s offensive that these exceptionally fortunate families are so concerned with insulating their children as much as possible from D.C.’s neediest students.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Blog Widget by LinkWithin

Comments

  1. #1

    You write with the naivete of a parent who has not picked up their child, who was clearly shaken by something they witnessed, but refused to talk about, from an underperforming school. You have not walked into a classroom to be heartbroken by the visibly dirty daughter of a woman you believe to be a prostitute as she struggles to learn. You have not heard a first grader use the word "mother***er." You have not talked to a DCPS teacher in the school about their (former) hard drug use. You have not seen an email from a teacher written as "Your student should bring they favorite book tomorrow." You have not been called an interloper, newcomer, someone who is not part of the real DC, or any number of racist names by a principal. You have not heard an adult man make an inappropriate comment about a minor girl. You have not had your child come back singing Christian gospel that an aide taught the kids. You have not had a black teacher, principal or other DCPS employee make anti-Jewish, anti-Gay, or Anti-Asian bigoted statements in front of you, and then fall back on how their blackness means they aren't really bigots. Let me just reiterate the anti-gay comments on that one.

    When much of the DC population is conservative, religious, socially right wing African-Americans, why are you confused that socially liberal white parents flinch at having their children around such lunatics, who also, by the way, are also uneducated and unsuccessful in their careers and frankly have nothing to offer your children except Redskins trivia.

    There ain't nothing offensive about insulating your children from violence perpetrated against them.

  2. #2

    Does the author know anything about Powell Elementary and the student body? Just because a school is in demand does not mean it is not diverse and excludes those with lower incomes.

    Powell is a wonderful school, but the it is hardly a bastion of gentrification and privilege.

    The student body is 99% free and reduced lunch, 3% white. The author conveniently omitted those facts.

    I believe the author is projecting his own prejudice and economic insecurity onto those around him. Powell is not an example of yuppy privilege it is an example of economic integration and opportunity for an entire community. The type of school built by an economically diverse community that could NEVER exist in a lottery system because lotteries don't facilitate ownership and responsibility from the surrounding community.

    For parents out there considering where to send your children search for information about Powell to learn more about the great work the principal and staff are doing and the diversity the school offers. If you are honestly seeking a diverse and strong school to send your child do not let the ignorance of this author discourage you from considering Powell.

    profiles.dcps.dc.gov/powell+Elementary+School

  3. #3

    I don't even know what the author was trying to say. Bad schools are bad? Racism is bad? Poverty is a problem? What's the conclusion? We're all screwed?

  4. #4

    It's like beating a drum how often I say this, but 99% FARM rate is often nowhere near 99%. DCPS just multiples the actual number by 1.6. So if you are 65% FARM, your school is classified as 99%

    http://greatergreatereducation.org/post/22378/why-are-so-many-dcps-schools-listed-as-99-low-income-its-not-necessarily-because-they-are/

  5. #5

    The underlying question: Why is it that in the capitol of the United States of America we cannot assure a top-notch education to every single child? This is absurd and sickening -- and the blame can surely not be placed on the teachers and their unions, as the so-called reformers would like to do. We should all be ashamed and angry.

  6. #6

    I've read this article 3 times now, and I'm still not sure what the point is. Other than the comical misrepresentation of Powell as some lily white bastion of the wealthy (note: 3% white and majority of children getting free or reduced lunch as of 2012-2013 per DCPS) and some non-sequiturs about helipads, this article just talks in looping, broad cliches.

    Ostensibly, it's something about gentrifiers trying to convince other gentrifiers to send their kids to neighborhood schools instead of moving to the suburbs or going charter and oh god the horror of that! But you offer no tangible (or useful) ideas of what middle class yuppies are supposed to do so they can meet your level of unobtrusiveness.

    Really, you could have just saved everyone a lot of time by writing "White people in the city are just the worst, AMIRITE?" and hit publish.

  7. #7

    Although it pains me to say it, Northwesterneer hit the nail on the head.

    The author comes across as very confused (or is on heavy medication). To think that our tax dollars are being spent for the author to conduct research and write about public education, which the article makes clear he knows very little about, is nauseating.

    This does highlight the sad cycle of poverty. The author claims he/she can't afford any apartment in a decent school district. But, he/she doesn't really see the benefit in going to a "better" school anyway, so why would she spend an extra nickel (make sacrifices) to move? The kids go to a horrible school surrounded by peers with no fathers and a culture of self defeat and grows up with low expectations and achieves them. Kid does not appreciate the value of good schools and education, has bad grammar and a low paying job just like mom and, hopefully, dad.

  8. #8

    The article opens with the question "Why Do Other Parents Care Where I Send My Kid to School?" and closes with passing judgment on other parents for where they send their kids.
    Not a whole lot of self-awareness there...

  9. #9

    Why is it that in the capitol of the United States of America we cannot assure a top-notch education to every single child?
    ----------
    I can explain this in one sentence: During his years in power Mayor Barry awarded teaching positions to the children of political cronies who were not real teachers and they rose to positions of power even though they have no skills.

  10. #10

    Hard to take the author -- or his editors -- seriously when he doesn't know the difference between pre-k (for 4-year-olds) and preschool (for 3-year-olds like his son).

  11. #11

    The author seems to be slowly coming to the realization that his first, nay ONLY, priority is to his son. Too slowly.

  12. #12

    @ anon -- D.C. uses PK-3 to describe preschool for 3-year-olds.

  13. #13

    You guys are overstating it. All he's really saying is that some parents aren't worried about improving middle schools because they are too worried about elementary school options.

    Still a silly point -- I mean, duh, guy -- but he's hardly expressing any naivete about the fact that most of our schools are shitholes.

  14. #14

    I frankly am at a lost to see why the so-called liberals are so busy attacking one person who is recounting his experience as if he is the Taliban. Northwesterneer, if all of this happened to you and you have now turned into the harsh bigot who is blaming everyone for what one person did to you, why the hell don't you move? For the rest of you, stop pretending that this is about school access, it is about excluding people who live in DC and pay taxes just like you do.

  15. #15

    No, topryder1, it's about pointing out the callow ignorance of one who must be new here.

  16. #16

    As a Ward 4 parent, I don't know what the heck the author is talking about. Having a middle school is the key to fixing the immediate education problem in this ward. Not only could it provide the appropriate educational options and experiences needed for 6 thru 8 graders, it removes those grades from the myriad "education campuses" and allows them to revert to a mission that they can possible achieve: educating PK thru 5th grade kids.

    It's possible that some busy body idiots are pressuring him to send his child to a subpar elementary, but that doesn't make the need for a real middle school any else valid or vital.

  17. #17

    The author has identified a real problem, as have many of the people posting replies who think they disagree with him. And it's a problem NOT being addressed by either Bowser or Catania, as they continue to not debate each other or discuss any issues beyond the most picayune tinkering with the status quo. We need rapid expansion of educational options and opportunities, radically increased school choice. It is not enough to say, as Catania does, that if you are a well off parent who can afford a home in a great school district you should have the right to go to that school. That only helps his voting base - who do deserve a safe and good education for their kids. But so does everyone else. Currently charters receive less than the $29,000 per student we spend in the traditional public schools, vouchers less than that, and tax credits for education don't even exist.

    We need equal opportunity and equal funding for all children no matter where they choose to go to school - public, charter, private, alternative, or home school.

    Additionally we regulate private, independent, alternative schools in DC with a different agency than those we use to regulate charter and public schools, and we make them have more bathrooms, more staff, more expensive furnishings, etc. etc. than charters and public schools.

    We keep new alternative schools from starting, and we keep people from getting the jobs those schools could provide to DC residents with no law degree. We also keep those kindergartens, and pre schools and elementary schools from coming into being so they can provide DC child care and education to Maryland and Virginia commuters who might want their kids to go to school across the street from their job in DC, since it would make logistics easier and make it easier to visit a child at lunch. By regulating our own DC child care and education industry out of existence, we export DC jobs and business opportunities to Maryland and Virginia again, and increase the burden on everyone of rush hour traffic as people have to get back and forth across state lines to pick kids up after school.

  18. #18

    The author has identified a real problem, as have many of the people posting replies who think they disagree with him.

    And it's a problem NOT being addressed by either Bowser or Catania, as they continue to not debate each other or discuss any issues beyond the most picayune tinkering with the status quo. We need rapid expansion of educational options and opportunities, radically increased school choice. It is not enough to say, as Catania does, that if you are a well off parent who can afford a home in a great school district you should have the right to go to that school. That only helps his voting base - who do deserve a safe and good education for their kids. But so does everyone else. Currently charters receive less than the $29,000 per student we spend in the traditional public schools, vouchers less than that, and tax credits for education don't even exist.

    We need equal opportunity and equal funding for all children no matter where they choose to go to school - public, charter, private, alternative, or home school.

    Additionally we regulate private, independent, alternative schools in DC with a different agency than those we use to regulate charter and public schools, and we make them have more bathrooms, more staff, more expensive furnishings, etc. etc. than charters and public schools.

    We keep new alternative schools from starting, and we keep people from getting the jobs those schools could provide to DC residents with no law degree. We also keep those kindergartens, and pre schools and elementary schools from coming into being so they can provide DC child care and education to Maryland and Virginia commuters who might want their kids to go to school across the street from their job in DC, since it would make logistics easier and make it easier to visit a child at lunch. By regulating our own DC child care and education industry out of existence, we export DC jobs and business opportunities to Maryland and Virginia again, and increase the burden on everyone of rush hour traffic as people have to get back and forth across state lines to pick kids up after school.

  19. #19

    It is your choice where you wish to send your children to school.

Leave a Comment

Blogs Linking to this Article

  1. What Are School Enrollment Boundaries For? | EdCentral

    […] about my own travails dealing with Washington, D.C.’s education system before. In a column in today’s Washington City Paper, I write about how the District’s education politics remain fundamentally driven by the […]

  2. What Are School Enrollment Boundaries For? | Montana College Access Network

    […] written about my own travails dealing with Washington, D.C.’s education system before. In a column in today’s Washington City Paper, I write about how the District’s education politics remain fundamentally driven by the politics […]

  3. Why Do Other Parents Care Where I Send My Kid to School? | FlipsPops

    […] (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({}); I’ve been watching it all with equal parts amusement and shock. My wife and I played the pre-K lottery because we can’t afford an apartment (let alone house) large enough for us and our two kids within the existing boundaries of any of D.C.’s handful of strong elementary schools. Since our in-boundary school is relatively weak, changes in the school boundaries don’t matter much for us. (The revised map DCPS put out last week in response to the reaction to the original proposal won’t do much to make weak schools stronger, either.) Read full article […]

Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...