Housing Complex

Zone Defense


Border Patrol: Residents are griping about losing access to Wilson High School.

It took just 20 minutes from the time Mayor Vince Gray announced his planned overhaul of the city’s public school assignment system last Thursday for the boos to start raining down on the DC Urban Moms and Dads online discussion forum. “Well, that sucks,” was the first reaction, from a Crestwood resident posting anonymously. “Just lost Deal Middle School access, which was a prime reason for buying our house 2 years ago. Wondering what this does to our property value.”

Two hours later, an email of a different sort hit the Mount Pleasant neighborhood listserv. “We did it!!!” was the subject line. “The adopted plan puts all of Mount Pleasant in bounds for Bancroft Elementary, Deal Middle School, and Wilson High School,” read the message, written by Joshua Louria, a five-year Mount Pleasant resident who’s worked with neighbors to try to persuade D.C.’s political leaders to give the neighborhood continued access to the city’s best-regarded public middle and high schools. “The adoption of this plan goes a long way toward ensuring excellent educational opportunities for years to come for our diverse Bancroft and Mount Pleasant community.”

It was inevitable that the first comprehensive redrawing of school assignment boundaries in more than 40 years would produce sharply different reactions among the perceived winners and losers of the process. The current system is riddled with problems: Convoluted feeder patterns allow a wide swath of the city to attend Deal and Wilson, both located west of Rock Creek Park, resulting in overcrowding at these schools while many in the eastern part of the city suffer from underenrollment. But any attempt to resolve this imbalance requires cutting off access to the city’s most popular schools for certain neighborhoods—where, intensifying things further, people may have bought homes with the expectation that their children would attend those schools.

And no two neighborhoods are more divided in their assessment of Gray’s redrawing of the boundaries than Mount Pleasant and adjacent Crestwood.

Until now, these neighborhoods have been geographically divided by the skinny stretch of greenery straddling Piney Branch Parkway but otherwise had much in common. They both jut westward from 16th Street NW into enclaves tucked within the east side of Rock Creek Park. They both have attractive housing stocks and increasingly affluent populations. And both have long enjoyed access to Deal and Wilson, despite their location on the other side of the park.

Last Thursday, Piney Branch became a divider of a much more important sort. Under the new system, which will take effect next school year but with a grandfathering provision that allows students to remain in their current schools, children in Mount Pleasant will retain access to Deal and Wilson. Those in Crestwood won’t. They’re slated to attend MacFarland Middle School, which closed last year due to underenrollment but is now set to reopen sometime in the next few years, and Roosevelt High School, which has barely one-quarter of Wilson’s enrollment and some of the worst test scores of any D.C. neighborhood high school.

“I feel like Crestwood essentially is negatively impacted by this outcome more than any other neighborhood in D.C.,” says Amanda Pezalla, a three-year Crestwood resident with 4- and 6-year-old children. “We lost our middle school. We lost our high school. I moved to this neighborhood because I planned to send my kids to Deal and Wilson. I’m outside my house, and the two houses that I’m looking at, my neighbors moved here because they planned to send their kids to Deal and Wilson.”

Carolyn Reynolds, who’s lived in Crestwood for slightly more than four years, is indignant upon learning that her two children at a nearby charter school won’t be grandfathered into Deal and Wilson under the new policy. “That’s outrageous,” she says. “That’s unacceptable.”

Reynolds continues, “We’re being told to send our kids to lower-performing schools, and you can’t ask us to do that. This entire initiative is predicated on the idea that the schools are of equal quality, and they’re not. Until you can offer equal or better options for parents, we need to put this initiative on hold.”

Meanwhile, just to the south, there aren’t many people clamoring for the new policy to be reversed.

“For Mount Pleasant, I think this was a very good outcome for a lot of reasons,” says Louria, who has a 5-month-old son and says access to good schools was a “huge factor” in his decision to buy a house in the neighborhood five years ago. One of those reasons is diversity at Deal and Wilson. The majority of students at Bancroft Elementary, in Mount Pleasant, are Latino, helping inject ethnic and socioeconomic balance at the schools in the mostly white section of town west of Rock Creek Park. (White students still comprise a minority at Deal and Wilson, although as those schools gain local popularity and fewer students from elsewhere in the city can attend them, that could change.)

“Bancroft parents are mostly lower-income and Latino, and it’s a great opportunity for them and great for the diversity of Deal,” agrees Mark Elton, a resident of Mount Pleasant since 2009 and a father of two young children, who says he’s “empathetic with our Crestwood neighbors.” Elton has attended meetings with representatives of the mayor and testified before the D.C. Council in favor of continued neighborhood access to Deal and Wilson.

The desire for diversity is one of the reasons Mount Pleasant emerged a winner in the process and Crestwood a loser. (Crestwood, while 50 percent black in the 2010 census, has fewer low-income and Latino residents than Mount Pleasant.) But logistics were probably a bigger factor. In order to maintain its goal of having each elementary school feed neatly into one middle and high school, the city would’ve had to move all of Powell Elementary School to Deal and Wilson if it wanted to keep Crestwood residents there. The Powell boundary includes most of Crestwood, but also parts of 16th Street Heights and Petworth where students aren’t zoned for Deal and Wilson, meaning that those schools would have had to absorb hundreds of new students at a time when the city is trying to reduce their overcrowding.

Bancroft, by contrast, already feeds into Deal, so keeping it within the Deal and Wilson orbit doesn’t add new students, even if the result is a map that makes Mount Pleasant an awkward appendage to the otherwise streamlined Deal boundary.

In other words, there’s a certain logic to the city’s strategy. But it’s not enough to satisfy Crestwood residents, who feel
their input was never taken seriously during the planning process.

“People are very disillusioned,” says Jeff Steele, who runs DC Urban Moms and Dads and lives in Crestwood. “Throughout the process, people in Crestwood have felt that we weren’t getting a fair shake.”

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says there was no way of avoiding frustration on the part of some residents in redrawing the boundaries. “If anybody thought that there was not going to be some pain associated with this, I think there were unrealistic expectations,” she says. “Part of the reason this has not been done in more than 40 years is that no one wanted to disappoint anybody.”

Gray, who had little at stake politically in tackling the thorny issue of school assignments after losing the Democratic mayoral primary in April, argues that the revised boundaries were long overdue, given that the current system predates D.C. home rule. “I think that no matter when you do this, you’re going to have some people who just simply won’t be happy with it,” he says.

Still, there could be consequences to that unhappiness. Karen Howard, president of the Crestwood Citizens Association, says there’s a “distinct possibility” that people will move out of the neighborhood in pursuit of better educational options.

“People plan many years in advance for the welfare of their children,” she says.

Henderson is unconcerned by that prospect. “Even those who decide to leave, you know, this city is getting 1,000 new residents a month,” she says. “And these residents will have babies.”

Some Crestwood residents have grumbled on DC Urban Moms and Dads about suing the city because they fear their property has lost value as a result of the schools change. That’s probably a longshot. More feasible is a full-court press to try to get the city’s future mayor—likely to be either Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser, who represents Crestwood and Ward 4 on the D.C. Council, or independent candidate and At-Large Councilmember David Catania—to alter the policy.

There are hurdles to doing so, given that the plan isn’t subject to Council approval and the lottery for next school year will open in December, before the new mayor takes office. But Crestwood residents haven’t given up hope. This week, both Bowser and Catania released statements announcing their opposition to the plan, although neither proposed an alternative or outlined a way to amend or delay Gray’s changes.

“We’re not done with this,” says Howard. “This is the expected outcome for a lame-duck mayor. But it’s not over.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • http://dcvacantproperties.blogspot.com Mari InShaw

    Henderson is correct. Nobody wanted to do anything for 40 years because people were gonna throw a hissy fit. Nobody wants to show real leadership. We may as well get real and segregate the schools by class, send all the poor kids whose parents are disenfranchised to one set of schools so DCPS can fail them as they've been doing for decades and then another set of public schools for the upper/middle class so they can be satiated. Add an out of boundary lottery to give the middle class parents 'diversity' on their terms.

    Also in a city where many households don't have school aged children, how much do schools play a part in percentage of property values? Dollar for dollar which has a greater impact, schools or private parking? Schools or closeness to a metro station?

  • Bob

    Suing the city for damages under some kind of a taking theory because the property owner has been redistricted to a lesser school is probably unrealistic. But it is clear that access to good schools results in higher property values. A more realistic approach is that everyone negatively impacted by the changes should challenge their DC property tax assessments on that basis. The DC government should not get the benefit of unrealistically high assessments when it has negatively impacted those property values.

  • mikel

    Bob, point well taken.

  • Ziggy Sobatka

    Guess which neighborhood Abigail Smith lives in?

  • sbc

    Southwest and the Navy Yard also got cut out of Wilson. If Mt. Pleasant should have stayed because it added diversity, those neighborhoods should have too.

  • eastof9

    @Bob: I recently challenged my property assessment due in part to a DC Water infrastructure project that is completely fencing off my residential street for 2 years, thus negatively affecting my property value for the next 2 years. The city denied it. I wouldn't expect better luck for Crestwood residents.

  • Mt. Pleasant resident

    Here's one key difference between these two neighborhoods. Many Mount Pleasant families choose to attend their local public elementary, Bancroft, even though it's largely low income and test scores are low. In Crestwood, the local elementaries aren't good enough and families choose charters. Why should these families get to shun their local public school then rejoin the public system at middle school?

  • Sarah

    It's not just Crestwood residents who are upset. Cleveland and Woodley Park have been part of the Deal feeder pattern since, like before the New Deal, and are being shunted to a lesser performing middle school. I'd say that messes with some pretty settled expectations.

  • Bob


    Sorry about your assessment protests, but I think the situations are quite different. Presumably you and your neighbors will get the benefit of more reliable water service after the short term pain. On the other hand, if DC said that as the result of the work, the water pressure and water quality to your home would drop going forward, you might have a better argument. Based on a host of objective measures, not just including standardized tests, it is clear that some neighborhoods are being moved from high performing, high quality schools which they have long attended, to lesser performing schools. School quality and real estate prices in this city are directly linked. For example, look how expensive the houses in AU Park are, which tend to be modest in size, because they are in the sought after Janney-Deal-Wilson pattern,

  • Penn Quarter

    Live in Penn Quarter (Ward 2), and also cut off from Wilson High.

  • mphs

    The old pattern in Mount Pleasant excluded all of the multi-family buildings from Deal, but single-family owners were in boundary. Telling. At least the new plan resolved the disparity within the neighborhood fairly.

    DC families still have tremendous choice and options, compared to any other district in the country. That's the larger point.

  • Tbonebullets

    Neither one of them should be zoned for Deal/Wilson, really. The commute from east of the park, west to Tenley in the mornings is a horrible hike; and at a time when studies show that kids need MORE sleep in the morning, not less, it makes little sense to make them suffer a drive over to Wisconsin avenue. DCPS needs to put money behind its promises, and a real plan, to give them a decent option - in their OWN neighborhood - for a neighborhood school.

  • Northwesterneer

    "Here's one key difference between these two neighborhoods. Many Mount Pleasant families choose to attend their local public elementary, Bancroft, even though it's largely low income and test scores are low. In Crestwood, the local elementaries aren't good enough and families choose charters. Why should these families get to shun their local public school then rejoin the public system at middle school?"

    First off, I don't see any logic in your last statement at all. That's like saying that someone should be forced to sleep with a bunch of creepy guys before allowing them to get married.

    If you think Mt Pleasant families send their children to Bancroft, I have a bridge to sell you. When someone buys a house on Park Rd for $2 million, their child is going to St Albans or Cathedral School. When they buy a townhouse for $900k-1 million their child is going to Murch, Janney or Hearst. If the family just moved in? Yu Ying Charter School. I would be surprised if any houses in Mt Pleasant sold for under $700k this year.

    Mt Pleasant is no longer diverse, that ship sailed years ago and in particular with the fire in that apartment building. Not sure that the Brooklyn wannabes who run Each Peach speak Spanish as these discussions suggest. (or, I should say, spoke Spanish before they took classes at NYU)

    "Neither one of them should be zoned for Deal/Wilson, really. The commute from east of the park, west to Tenley in the mornings is a horrible hike"

    You do understand that in suburban counties the statement you just made would be meant as a joke. A 15 minute bus ride is not a horrible hike. Conceivably the drive from far west Spring Valley to Wilson is farther.

  • Northwesterneer

    "The old pattern in Mount Pleasant excluded all of the multi-family buildings from Deal, but single-family owners were in boundary. Telling."

    I don't know that area well, but wasn't there a junior high directly across from the Mt Pleasant apartment buildings that is now called the Lincoln Middle School? Wasn't the old boundary related to that middle school which is now some kind of charter?

  • Northwesterneer

    "Sorry about your assessment protests, but I think the situations are quite different. Presumably you and your neighbors will get the benefit of more reliable water service after the short term pain. On the other hand, if DC said that as the result of the work, the water pressure and water quality to your home would drop going forward, you might have a better argument. ...
    For example, look how expensive the houses in AU Park are, which tend to be modest in size, because they are in the sought after Janney-Deal-Wilson pattern,"

    Bob, it's for the courts to decide, but I don't see that:
    1. You can prove a direct correlation
    2. The AU Park schools are valuable because of their feeder patterns when so many of my friends who live there send their kids to Maret

  • Northwesterneer

    In the end what's so ridiculous is that these boundary changes have parents fighting over Deal and Wilson when Westland/BCC, Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax, North Bethesda/WJ, Pyle/Whitman, Montgomery Blair, James Madison, Langley or McLean are all better schools.

  • Jeff

    This is just kind of a depressing topic. The thing is that it was fairly obvious that somebody was going to get screwed in redistricting. It was also fairly obvious that it needed to be done. Keeping 40 year old boundaries because you are afraid of the backlash is the opposite of leadership. I would be upset if I lived in Crestwood though. I'd be really upset.

  • Jasper

    The reason that the drive from east of the park to good schools on the west is so bad is because Klingle Rd remainsT closed. It is pretty exclusionary to close it for a private walking and biking trail. There are so few routes east-west routes across the park. We need more of them and DC shouldn't close one of them for the select few. Klingle Rd would provide a quick bypass route under Connecticut Ave. to get to the schools -- which are our schools, not just Ward 3 schools. They should widen and repave Klingle and name it the One City Parkway. Let's get on with it.

  • Tbonebullets

    @Northwesterneer: you cannot leave Crestwood at 8:30 and get a kid to school in time for the 8:45 start. You can't do it if you leave at 8:15. But it's probably a pretty quick drive if you leave Crestwood at 8:00, before rush hour hits hard. DCPS ought to provide the kids a school that doesn't require cross-town travel.

  • spgorm

    Northwesterner, Jasper.

    Did you forget that Shepherd Park got moved from Coolidge to Wilson and Deal? It may mean that our poor, suffering students children may have to go through Maryland to get to school. Awful, just awful!

    But why are they dancing for joy?

  • spgorm


    I went to an open house that was listed for sale in Crestwood not long ago and the black, female realtor said to me, "Get more gays! They always bring up the property values."

    Could that be why Crestwood is ranked third in the city per capita for the most same-sex "dink" couples?

  • Haveagreatdaynowyahear

    From a personal level the Crestwood parents' reaction is understandable. However, gentrification throughout the city will start to "improve" (both tangibly and metaphorically) schools long since given up for dead. Schools like Bell, Cardozo, Eastern, Dunbar and Roosevelt (and possibly Coolidge) will be much more diverse and integrated 10-15 years from now than currently, especially with their physical plants being overhauled and the relatively small populations they'll be starting from. It's a matter of when and how these places will reach their tipping point and each school will have their own story there. The days of cramming all the white, middle/upper class kids into Wilson/Deal are over.

  • NE Capitol Hill

    Unfortunately, your comment is too true. White parents are afraid to send their children to school with black children and with the continued skyrocketing prices of houses in the city, the trend will be majority white DCPS (in all wards, except 7 & 8).

  • alex

    wilson itself is only 20% white, and these 20% are generally sons and daughters of comparatively rich, extremely over/well-educated parents. the black students are in the majority on free lunch; i.e. poor even by black standards. in other words, the racial+socioeconomic demographics of wilson represent an extreme aberration--there may be nothing like it in the entire country--particularly given that parents that send their kids there knowing that some of the best-rated public schools in the country lie 5-10 miles west of wilson. the point is not that these parents are owed something, but that it is comical the way wilson and deal are talked about as if they're georgetown day school.

    as for the "It's a matter of when and how," i'd love to hear a hypothetical scenario in which those schools end up as wilsons.
    currently each are less than one percent white, and some of them have zero
    white students, even though the population of the boundaries are over half white. this will continue to be the case in perpetuity so long as certain influential people agitate to disperse the white population of any school that actually does manage to cross the 'tipping point.' this is currently the case with elementary schools.

  • Haveagreatdaynowyahear

    Easily. Exploding growth and demographic changes in gentrifying neighborhoods mean the neighborhoods themselves will reach a "diversity" tipping point (say, over 50% white with sizable and growing populations of Asians and higher median income) and at a certain point the monolith of poor black/Hispanic high schools will be broken. It's already starting to happen at the elementary school level across the city in Capitol Hill, Shaw, etc. and after a certain point will inevitably cross over to the middle and high school level as well. Sure, many of those parents will choose charters but there will still be significant spillover. Once parents see the first couple of classes of their kids reintegrating the newly renovated, underenrolled schools with smaller class sizes and new programs get along without incident those numbers will only grow. As Wilson becomes more like an inner suburban high school those schools will probably become what Wilson is, a majority minority school with different levels and programs of specialized instruction.

    Just like "bad" neighborhoods change we shouldn't assume "bad" schools will always remain as they are. Marion Barry's DC is rapidly fading into history.

  • alex

    you are not getting the fact demographic change in the neighborhoods in general in no way necessitates demographic change in the schools; there is a completely different set of racial politics in play. you mention capitol hill, which does have a few schools that have crossed the 'tipping point', (brent, maury) but notice that many of the schools are still anywhere from almost zero % (payne, miner, ludlow taylor) to about 20% (tyler, watkins) white even though the % of white kids within the boundaries is well over 50% and has been for some time. why is that? even in the schools elementary schools with identifiable white contingents, the parents often pull the kids out by 4th grade. the rich-area CH middle school is 10% white, and the east one, in an area with an ~/over half white population, hasn't had a single white student in 21 years.

    "NE capitol hill" seems to think it's because white parents "afraid to send their children to school with black children," but the reality is that the sort of white people we're talking about here are the sort that moved into these neighborhoods to begin with. i.e. they're usually comparatively hard left, self-flagellating white guilt types that would love nothing more than to send their kids to school with blacks and be at the forefront of integration.

    what that takes, however,is a genuine willingness to get to that tipping point both at 1) the individual school level (many are fiefdom-like shops run by all-black administrations that are actively hostile to integration, or if not integration in itself, the additional scrutiny that highly educated white parents bring to PTAs), and 2) the city level, where DCPS has resisted and continues to resist 'differentiated learning,' i.e. the common distinctions made between kids of differing abilities and advanced course offerings which are bound to 'favor' the kids of highly educated parents and result in 'segregation'.

    let's not also forget that deal and wilson are very special cases in that they have always been located in the whiteish part of town and have always had a white critical mass with many blacks coming from out of bounds to go to a better school (i.e. self-selecting pool as it is), whereas every other DCPS middle and high school is starting completely from scratch. totally different political dynamic in every respect.

    this is real life, not sociology 101. the changing demographic (/'gentrification') of the neighborhoods has been largely "market-based," but with the schools, the black city leadership, school administrations, and to some extent the current students themselves will need to want real integration as a precondition of it actually happening. not there yet

  • Haveagreatdaynowyahear

    I don't think it's that complicated. Yes, the dynamics of school enrollment are different than straight market forces but those factors and dynamics you've laid out aren't set in stone forevermore. These "fiefdoms" as you term them will eventually turn over and started to in the Fenty administration. The point is there is a fundamental demographic sea change happening in DC (call it "the plan" if you want) and high schools will eventually get the kids of some of these former "urban pioneers" who will suddenly act as if they always owned the place, liberal and self-flagellating or not. It may start off as a trickle but eventually there will come a time, probably sooner than later, that middle class white and Asian kids will be a common sight in certain DC public schools, probably starting with Cardozo and perhaps Eastern.

    Believe me, if you talked to me 10 years ago about this I would've laughed off the idea of wide-spread integration in non-Wilson DC neighborhood high schools for the same reasons you have listed. But I've seen too much change too quickly to think that Chocolate City ways of doing business will stay around forever.

  • Haveagreatdaynowyahear

    You also should keep in mind that many of the white professional parents in gentrifying, emerging neighborhoods are young Millenials with very young children, many if not most of whom come from outside the area and don't have the same degree of local racial baggage. They're already taking chances on elementary schools like Tubman, Ross, Brent, Maury, and Thomson in increasing numbers every year. This change is still pretty small and nascent but keep in mind no white professional parent would ever have thought of sending their child to one of these schools only 10-15 years ago. It only takes a few relatively organized, active, educated, involved and connected parents to begin to change the culture.

  • Cali_ExPat

    What strikes me is the fact that what makes a "good school" is four things, the quality of the faculty, the level of preparation for the students, the level of investment by parents, and the facilities themselves. I am confident that the first criteria can be changed by DCPS rather quickly, the fourth is a medium-term issue (with many schools having recent renovations as it is), while the second and third criteria take the longest time to change within the same population. The District can change the second and third criteria quickly by simply shuffling the feeder patterns around, which they've done, and this should have the immediate effect of bringing "bad" and "mediocre" schools up one tier so long as the well-prepared/parentally-involved families are moved to those schools.

    I predict the effect of the redistricting will be to raise Roosevelt and Dunbar from bad schools to mediocre ones, Cardozo and Eastern will go from mediocre to good, while Woodson and McKinley will stay mediocre, Ballou and Anacostia will likely stay bad, and Wilson will stay good.

    The Crestwood parents will have to be more involved with Roosevelt than they would need to be with Wilson to achieve an improvement, and that improvement will likely still be below the level of quality of Wilson. No wonder they are upset.

    However, it's a net positive for the system as a whole. The same principal is true of the elementary and middle schools.

    I'm most excited about Eastern and Dunbar, both of which have potential to be amazing urban high schools, which would be a significant achievement.

  • chris8lee

    It's scandalous to admit the plain truth. White schools are better schools. The purpose of education is not to produce egghead technicians, with heads full of facts. The purpose of our education from college prep, undergrad and further is to orient children to the Western European world ( cosmology ). White kids largely speaking are at an advantage in that they are born into this heritage and have it reinforced at home and local social networks. The larger the african american or latino
    percentage, the further you are away from this program. Social studies is about generalities and mean averages. Especially in the context of this kind of discussion the exceptions prove the rule.

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