School Assignment Proposals: Who’s Happy, and Who Freaks Out
Cue the hysteria: City officials have released a proposal for new school boundaries, along with three potential scenarios for determining which schools a child attends. The proposals range from moderate to radical, with something in each one to rile up a large chunk of the D.C. population. They're also highly uncertain: Not only must the committee that developed them, led by Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, narrow down its slate of options to a more concrete recommendation, but anything pushed by the administration of Mayor Vince Gray could be rejected by Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser or independent challenger David Catania, who both sit on the D.C. Council—and Catania chairs its education committee.
Nonetheless, here's a rundown of the three proposals and who will love and hate them.
What it does:
Elementary: Elementary schools are grouped into "choice sets" of three or four schools located near one another. Each household is in boundary for a certain choice set and ranks the schools in that set by preference. A lottery determines placement, with preference for that ranking and for sibling enrollment. Charter schools could also opt into choice sets and act like neighborhood schools.
Middle: There are no boundaries. Instead, each student has the right to attend one of the two middle schools located closest to his or her home, with a higher chance (but no guarantee) of attending the school that student prefers.
High: High-school placement is determined by lottery, with preference given for proximity and sibling enrollment.
Diversity advocates for elementary schools: This proposal ought to help ensure that within a neighborhood, everyone has equal access to the "good" school or schools. Still, the impact might be limited, given that high-performing schools are still clustered together, as are low-performing schools. For example, Lafayette, Janney, and Murch elementary schools—all desirable schools west of Rock Creek Park—form one of the choice sets, raising the question of who benefits from mixing them up.
People who don't like their neighborhood school: With these changes, particularly the high-school lottery, there could be a greater chance of attending a school that's currently not within a student's boundary.
Who freaks out:
People who want to walk to school: If you live next door to your in-boundary elementary or middle school, you might get forced to go to a different school within the elementary-school choice set or middle-school pair that's a mile or more away.
Homeowners in the Wilson boundary: Buy a home recently with the hope of sending your kids to Wilson High School? You no longer have a guaranteed right to go there.
The Garrison and Powell crews: People who have devoted time and effort to improving their local elementary school, like the active group advocating for Garrison and Powell elementary schools, might suddenly find their kids unable to go there.
Neighbors who carpool (or just hang out): Families on the same block have no guarantee of going to the same school.
Diversity advocates for high schools: Proximity preference could mean that only people west of Rock Creek Park get preference for Wilson—if, that is, enough of them stick around D.C. Public Schools to populate Wilson.
What it does:
Elementary: The system stays pretty much as it is, but with some redrawn boundaries. Each school sets aside 10 percent of its seats for out-of-boundary students with an underperforming neighborhood school.
Middle: Again, the boundary system reigns. Middle schools set aside 15 percent of their seats for out-of-boundary students with an underperforming neighborhood school.
High: High-school boundaries are determined by combining the boundaries of the feeder middle schools. High schools set aside 20 percent of their seats for out-of-boundary students with an underperforming neighborhood school.
Advocates of predictability: You know exactly where your kid's going to elementary, middle, and high school.
Wilson feeders: Most people currently set to feed into Wilson High School can breathe a sigh of relief—that right isn't getting yanked away. Parents of students at east-of-the-park schools Shepherd and Bancroft will be particularly grateful not to lose their right to send their kids to Alice Deal Middle School and Wilson.
Who freaks out:
Students at Oyster-Adams: They currently feed into Wilson, but would be redirected to lower-performing Cardozo High School, unless there's excess capacity at Wilson.
Students at John Eaton Elementary: They would be sent to Hardy Middle School instead of Deal.
Advocates of change: This proposal mostly preserves the system that some people are hoping to see shaken up.
What it does:
Elementary: The boundary system continues to reign.
Middle: Each elementary school feeds into a group of one to three middle schools. Where there's more than one option, the student's preference would guide but not guarantee placement.
High: Placement is determined by a city-wide lottery. Preference is not given for proximity, but rather for sibling enrollment and the ability to continue in specialized programming (for example, a student coming from a STEM middle school would get preference for a STEM high school).
Charter schools and Montgomery County: With no guarantee or even likelihood of being able to attend the city's top high schools, residents of neighborhoods with good schools would likely flee the public-school system for charters, private schools, or the suburbs.
Residents of neighborhoods with bad schools: They'd have a better shot at attending the city's top schools like Wilson, although it could mean a trek.
Who freaks out:
People in the Wilson and Eastern boundaries: Thought you were sending your kids to one of the city's best high schools? Guess again. You're just as likely to end up at Roosevelt, Ballou, or Anacostia.
The travel-averse: With proximity no longer a factor for high school, the majority of the city's high-school students would likely have to travel a long way to get to class.
Photo by Darrow Mongtomery