BY: CLAIRE PARKER, MANAGING EDITOR/NEWS EDITOR
The DC public school system will soon undergo the biggest transformation it has experienced in several decades. Deputy Mayor of Education Abigail Smith launched a school assignment revision process in October, which, once completed, will result in new boundaries and feeder patterns for the 2015-2016 school year.
D.C.’s school assignment policies, which include boundaries and feeder patterns, have not changed in over 40 years. The city, though, is a different story. DC’s population, demographics, and neighborhoods have changed dramatically. In addition, the emergence of the charter sector, multiple rounds of school closures, and recent modernizations have contributed to a school landscape that looks markedly different than it did several decades ago. Many schools throughout the city are underpopulated and underutilized, while Ward 3 schools Wilson and Deal are over capacity. Wilson’s boundary alone covers 40% of the landmass of the city. “You can’t go forever without changing boundaries, because that’s not sustainable,” said Matthew Frumin, a Wilson parent and member of the recently-established DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment.
However, while education policy-makers, parents, and community members alike agree that changing the student assignment process is essential, how these changes should take place and what they should encompass has prompted debate and controversy.
The student assignment revision process is an initiative by the Deputy Mayor of Education, Abigail Smith. Smith’s office established the 20-member DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, which will meet monthly, listen to communities around DC, and develop a proposal for a revised student assignment process, which could encompass new boundaries, feeder patterns and a means of better integrating the charter and traditional public systems. According to Smith, members were “selected for the knowledge and experience they bring to the table,” rather than to represent each ward. The committee consists of 15 community representatives and four DC agency representatives, with a six person technical team to assist them.
Frumin said “I’m one of 20 people on this committee, and part of what everyone has to do at the beginning is park your pre-conceived ideas at least for a while, and be a part of discussing all the issues and get a sense of differing views, and try to come up together with a solution that accomplishes the core goals.”
In addition to the Advisory Committee, any DC resident could sign up to attend focus groups in November and December to share their input. Community members can also sign up for working groups representing different areas of the city, which will work on developing policy in the spring. Wilson community members are eligible to participate in the Center City and Upper Northwest/Northeast working groups. Wilson PTSO president Ruth Ernst said the organization is publicizing opportunities for involvement and may organize meetings in an attempt to get Wilson parents’ input.
However, some DC residents have complained about a lack of transparency in the process. Candace Rhett, a public witness at a November 15th DC Council hearing on the process, shared many Ward 7 residents’ concern that her ward is underrepresented in the advisory council. She also expressed concerns that community members were not given an opportunity to weigh in on who they felt should represent them on the committee. Smith responded that she would take concerns about the Committee into consideration, and may add members to the committee. Smith said “We have been very intentional about creating a process that allows for extensive public input, so that the school choice and school assignment policies we ultimately adopt will result in greater clarity, stability, and continuity for families.”
Committee members Frumin and Cathy Reilly, who heads the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators (S.H.A.P.P.E.), feel that the process involves sufficient public consultation. “The advisory committee; focus groups, working groups and community meetings represent more transparency than we have had in recent memory on policy issues,” said Reilly. Frumin says “I am reaching out to anyone and everyone, and I’m willing to talk with people across the city.”
Discussions of boundaries and student assignment have dredged up issues of geography, race, and socioeconomics. Public witnesses and councilmembers at the November 15th hearing commented on disparities in quality between schools West and East of Rock Creek Park. Ward 2 councilmember Mary Cheh said “The school boundary issue is very sensitive — it’s politically sensitive, it’s racially sensitive, it’s sensitive in terms of income groups, along every sort of metric you can think of.”
Rhett warned of a city divided along racial lines. “We [Ward 7 residents] feel like we’re moving towards separate and unequal,” she said. “We have been sending our children to other wards to get a quality education.”
David Goldberg, another public witness, argued that concentrating the city’s affluent population in upper Northwest schools is harmful to the system. Goldberg and several councilmembers agreed on the importance of diversity in DC schools. “The last thing we want to do is split our city down Rock Creek Park,” said Ward 4 councilmember Muriel Bowser.
Everyone invested in the issue stressed the need for quality schools across the city. “We need uniformity across all of our schools — the same programs, the same quality,” said DC Council Committee on Education chair David Catania. Frumin believes that in order for Wilson to maintain its quality, the Wilson community needs to actively work to boost the quality of other schools. “You can’t have an island of a really strong feeder pattern and great schools that are overcrowded,” he said. “I think that when people in other parts of the city are advocating for things that they want to see in their community people in the Wilson community should be supporting them. They should be supporting them in spirit and supporting them politically, so it’s not just everyone out there trying to solve their own issues, but so it’s actually people from around the city supporting each other so we have a successful system in all parts of the city.”
Perhaps the most contentious issue of the school assignment revision process revolves around what DC residents value most in their schools. Frumin said the first few meetings of the Advisory Committee centered around discussing these values. “There is predictability, there is proximity, there is access to quality schools, there is equitable access to quality schools, there is diversity in the schools, there is cost and efficiency of the system or systems — all of those things are things that everyone would consider important, but then the question is: how to we prioritize these things? Is there a hierarchy to these things? Do they differ at the elementary and the higher levels?” Frumin said. “There are lots of values and they’re all important. They may not be exclusive of each other; it may take creativity to figure out how to square the circle.”
Reilly said “Personally I value maintaining neighborhood schools of right as an important option to maintain. I think our schools can be anchors in their communities and represent important public assets.” Other valued diversity above all else, while Kanika Brookins, a Ward 7 resident, said “Our primary concern is safety issues. We don’t want to send a child to a school that has a history of a lot of violence.”
Councilmember Tommy Wells said “It’s not just a boundary issue. It’s bigger than that.” The process has evolved into one that will address quality issues as well. Frumin said “the challenge is, you have to do both. we have to solve the boundary issues, and we have to solve the quality issues. We have to be committed to doing both.”
The process will inevitably result in changes to Wilson’s boundaries, which will most likely exclude some areas previously included in Wilson’s territory. However, Frumin believes this does not need to be a bad thing. “Our goal should be that someday, rather than seeing exclusion from the Wilson boundary as a tragedy, communities and families will be torn in deciding whether Wilson, Roosevelt, or Coolidge is the best option for their kids,” he said.
For now, though, no changes have been discussed or decided upon. “Everything’s on the table,” said Smith. “We want this to be as open a process as it possibly can be.”
When the Advisory Committee’s recommendations are released in May, there will be a platform for community members to give feedback before a final plan is presented in September 2014. The mayor has the final say on approving the proposal, which would take effect for the 2015-2016 school year.
“This is a complicated issue,” said Catania. “It’s important that we get it right.”