Housing Complex

Uneasy Parents Share Concerns Over School Assignment Proposals

Parents examine the city's school proposals at Coolidge High School.

Parents examine the city's school proposals at Coolidge High School.

Anxious public-school parents packed the gymnasium at Coolidge High School last night to express their concerns over the city's proposals for realigning school boundaries and changing the student assignment process.

The parents at this meeting—the third public gathering after the city released its proposals over the weekend—were largely from upper Northwest, the area whose schools have the best reputation, and where residents therefore feel they have the most to lose. Two of the three proposals would open high schools to a citywide lottery and provide multiple middle-school options for most households, creating a degree of uncertainty for families who thought they were destined for the city's most successful and sought-after neighborhood schools, Alice Deal Middle School and Wilson High School in Tenleytown.

"The citywide lottery is just a ridiculous, horrible idea," said Mia Dell, a parent of three children at Lafayette Elementary School, which feeds into Deal and Wilson, to her tablemates as the meeting broke into group discussions.

"The whole neighborhood school idea seems central to me," said Stoddert Elementary School parent Julie Schneider, who, like others at the meeting, worried about losing the right to attend a nearby school.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who led the committee that drafted the proposals, anticipated the distress. "I know there are a lot of people in the room who are feeling anxious," she said in opening the meeting. Smith reassured parents that it was untrue that she already had a set plan ironed out and that the exercise of floating the three proposals was "just a charade," as some people suggested. (Smith asked the crowd how many people felt this way; a few hands went up.)

The three plans, she said, are just "initial proposals" that are likely to change. "Our expectation is that we probably will not end up with Policy Example A, B, or C," she said. "We'll probably end up with D, E, F, X, Y, or Z."

Still, some community members felt that two of the so-called policy examples were designed to be unpalatable, so as to make the third, more conservative one appear like the consensus position.

"They've put a lot of things on the table," said Powell Elementary School parent Andy Rowe, "and only some of them seem realistic."

Rowe is among the highly engaged parents who have helped turn Powell from a mediocre, underenrolled school into a successful one that's surpassed its capacity amid high demand. Now, with the redrawn boundaries proposed by Smith's team, Rowe would no longer be in-boundary for Powell.

"We're going to have another child, and it's my hope she'll go to Powell, too," Rowe said.

Jeff Steele, a resident of nearby Crestwood who runs the popular Web forum DC Urban Moms and Dads, is likewise frustrated that his neighborhood would lose the right to go to Powell under the proposed changes. He acknowledges that Crestwood parents have historically found ways of dodging Powell and sending their kids elsewhere, but says that in the past couple of years, a few neighborhood parents have started opting for Powell and trying to recruit their friends and neighbors.

"It's unfortunate that just as Crestwood was starting to make a commitment to Powell, we're getting the rug pulled out from under us," Steele said.

Some Crestwood parents feel uniquely slighted by the city's proposals. Not only would a portion of the neighborhood lose the right to attend Powell, but the entire neighborhood would be zoned out of attending Deal and Wilson under the redrawn boundaries—a much bigger concern for many neighbors.

Specific school assignments aside, some attendees of the meeting had concerns about the proposed changes on transportation and even environmental grounds. Jeff, a Wakefield resident who declined to give his last name, says he bought a home in upper Northwest with the intention of sending his children to nearby Murch Elementary School. With some of the proposals, he'd have to bring them to much farther locations—and under a citywide high-school lottery, which he called "madness," he could be required to bring them to the other side of town. If half the families in the city need to do that, he said, it would worsen not only traffic, but also pollution.

Still, at least one parent urged her compatriots not to think small in weighing in on the first comprehensive review of school boundaries since D.C. obtained home rule in 1973. "I would hope that we wouldn't get trapped by fear of change," Michelle, who declined to provide her last name and whose son will attend Powell next year, told the parents at her table.

Ultimately, Smith won't have the final say on these changes. She's hoping to release the administration's final plan in September, two months before a new mayor—presumably either Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser or independent challenger David Catania–is elected. Neither Bowser nor Catania has committed to supporting the current administration's proposal.

"I would hope," Smith said, "that any new mayor coming into that seat would respect the process."

Photo by Aaron Wiener

  • Lawrence

    People didn't move to Palisades so that their children would have to go to school in Ward 7
    This idea is dead, and whoever funded it and nursed it should be shopping their resume.

  • mikeDC

    Lawrence hits the nail on the head!

  • Suse

    I don't understand the logistics of this: do they expect families traversing across town (in any direction) to get their child to school on time and still get to their jobs? How? Busing? Metro? One family/one car?

  • CommonDenominator

    I am sure that was never the real plan anyway, just a ‘heat check.’ It will be interesting to see how gentrifying families East of the park respond to the plan. It seems to me that they would want access to the Ward 3 schools, no? I assume Ward 3 parents want to ‘close their borders’ and continue the lottery program for any open slots (Lottery spots at Murch, Janney and Lafayette are all but gone anyway.) There does not appear to be any way to align the interests of these two groups.

    How will Shepherd Elementary School parents view the plan? I can’t see how Shepherd remains a feeder for Deal. How will out of boundary kids already in Deal feeders be treated? What about their younger siblings? I don’t envy the decision maker(s)

  • PHS

    I don't understand how any plan that prevents an in-bound child from attending their neighborhood schools so that another child from a low performning /non-neighborhood school can take their spot is going to work for anyone. Fix all the schools so every school is high performing. Shouldn't that be the goal of DCPS ?

  • CapitolHillNE

    PHS is correct. No one seems to be addressing this issue. The problem is no parent should have to bus or drive their child across town to a high performing school. Parents that live in areas with low performing schools need to place the same type of pressure that these parents that showed up at Coolidge (to protect their territory)on school officials. Start demanding the best teachers and curriculums for your neighborhood school.

  • Ward 4

    Lost in the (false) hysteria of Ward 3 kids being shipped to Anacostia, the proposals offer a nice mix of ideas such as a new Ward 3 HS, new stand alone middle schools EOTP where there are either NONE now or the stupid K-8 "education campuses". Also, new application-only secondary schools in the eastern part of city to relieve the pressure on Deal/Wilson.

    Static, geographic boundaries make little to no sense when >50% of kids attend charter schools and another 25% are OOB.

  • Well

    The schools are overcrowded so something has to be done. So did any of the unhappy parents have ideas or is it all just complaints?

  • seriously

    Capitolhillne- unfortunately that's not how it works. Low performing school are near vast swaths of bad poverty, and it takes time, effort and frankly gentrification often to change they're performance.

    The current lottery system creates a major problem with brain drain where the low performing schools only get kids who can't or don't get to better schools thru the lottery.

    It's really complex. When you are dealing with drew elementary for example which feeds right from a huge housing project, there are major issues that go beyond a pta and xinvolved " parents.

  • seriously

    My spelling was atrocious... lol

  • seriously

    What I didn't get from these proposals is how brain drain and performance of low performing schools is addressed.

    It's unfortunate that it has seemingly deteriorated from that convo to a cat fight about families of means getting into their choice schools.

    A good portion of the districts kids don't have choice schools and I think that should be in focus

  • CommonDenominator

    @seriously - The lottery system does skim off the parents who would be most active. Private schools also poach some of the smart kids of limited means. (btw - Good points no one cares about spelling)

    One thing I really wanted to see is a new high school downtown (I hate DC to NYC comparisons but Stuyvesant is in Manhattan right near the financial district I think the location is part of the appeal) This is DC, a magnate program with a focus on government / foreign service would be highly desirable. A new school on the City Center site would have been accessible for all wards (close to Metro Center) and convenient for student to do community service at different government agencies. It would be an application school like Walls but with each middle school principal having the right to place 3-5 ‘promising’ students.

    Think outside the box a little DCPS, how about a new building for Banneker @ McMillan?

  • stick2yourguns

    well Coolidge & Roosevelt alumni and current bowser didn't even show up...shows how much this matters to her.

  • OldPegLeg

    (I hate DC to NYC comparisons but Stuyvesant is in Manhattan right near the financial district I think the location is part of the appeal)

    Stuyvesant was appealing when it was on 15th street nr the old ungentrified Lower East Side. Bronx Science was and is appealing. Thomas Jefferson in NoVa is appealing, and its located in a part of FFX county that is not affluent, and is inconvenient to the large number of students from North Fairfax and Loudoun.

  • CommonDenominator

    @OldPegLeg I’m not sure I follow.

    DC wants to create high performing high schools. It is not the most important thing but a good location would help attract a diverse student body when trying to build strong schools. TJ has been rated the #1 public school in the country in some years. Stuyvesant has been a strong urban brand for decades so they could pretty much move anywhere and still attract NYC students. DCPS is trying to build that. I was an outer-borough kid so going downtown for high school was definitely part of the appeal of Stuyvesant. Location alone will not do it which is why I mentioned a strong magnate program and nice facility. DCPS has done a great job renovating Dunbar, Wilson, Woodson, SWoW etc. I have seen the plans for Ballou and Ellington both will look great when done. A nice downtown school could take pressure of Wilson and create another accessible option for DC students from all Wards. This is just my idea I am open to others.

  • Marvin E. Adams

    Nice observation, concerning Councilmember Bowser not being in attendance. But let's keep it fair and balanced. Was Councilmember Catania there? As far as all the frustration and uncertainty is concerned, at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I must reiterate what was stated earlier -- Do everything humanly possible to enhance the quality of A-L-L schools!