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Watch D.C.’s School Demographics Change Over the Past Decade

ward4

D.C.'s public school landscape could soon change in a big way. The city is in the process of overhauling its school assignment boundaries and policies, and its proposals so far include radical measures like a citywide lottery for high school students that would upend the longstanding role that geography plays in the city's schools.

But really, the school landscape has already been changing significantly. Over the past decade, charter schools have poached a sizable proportion of the city's traditional public school population. After years of decline, enrollment at city elementary schools has begun to rise. An increasing number of white parents are sending their kids to the city's public schools. And public schools in the eastern part of the city have closed as charters have proliferated.

A new study by the Urban Institute converts the data on D.C.'s changing schools picture into a series of nifty interactives, maps, and charts that demonstrate just how different things are now compared to a decade ago. "The overall story is that big changes in D.C. are reflected in big changes in schools," says Austin Nichols, the lead researcher on the project, who himself went to D.C. public schools and serves on the boundary review committee.

But there's a whole lot more nuance than that. Exhibit A is this interactive map showing the changing enrollment at traditional public and charter schools across the city. Note how the sea of blue slowly turns red in the eastern two-thirds of the city:

For all the focus on neighborhood schools, the fact is that in some parts of the city, a high percentage or even a majority of public school students attend schools outside of their home ward—due to expansive boundaries, convoluted feeder patterns, and students opting for specialized, charter, or out-of-boundary schools. In Ward 2, which doesn't have any matter-of-right neighborhood high schools, only 34 percent of public school students went to schools in the ward in 2012, down from 56 percent in 2003. Ward 4 (see map above) has the highest total number of students attending out-of-ward schools: 3,091 Ward 4 residents go to school in Ward 1 (largely charter schools), and 1,505 go to school in Ward 3. Ward 3, whose schools have the best reputation, sends the fewest students to other wards.

Here, from a related blog post from the Urban Institute, is a breakdown of where Ward 4 students go to school:

ward4where

Part of the change in the city is simply demographic. All across the city, birth rates are higher now than a decade ago, largely because the city's population is bigger. But in certain neighborhoods, it's much higher. Take a look at the number of births in the Columbia Heights/Petworth area in 2003, broken down by the education level of the mother. Green means no bachelor's degree, light blue means bachelor's degree, dark blue means a higher degree, and dark gray means no information:

2003ed

Now look at the same map for 2011, and notice how many more blue dots there are—particularly dark blue dots:

2011ed

The whole project is very much worth playing around with—check it out here.

Graphics from the Urban Institute

  • Pop M

    Can you clarify the specifics of the interactive map that runs first in this piece somewhat? Are the dots size or intensity ACTUAL NUMERIC CHANGE scale or PERCENTAGE change scale? I'm hoping it is the former rather than the later. If it is the later, it is more challenging to interpret as PERCENT reflects both the numerator (number increase) and the DENOMINATOR (starting number). That means if you start small, small number increases can look large compared to the same actual number change over a larger number starting point. Thanks. These maps are very interesting.

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