Hardy Middle School. Image from the Georgetown Metropolitan.

District parents are without clear plans for middle school expansions after DCPS officials canceled the planning process for a new arts magnet middle school. DCPS officials confirmed the suspension with Greater Greater Washington last week and said the need for a city-wide comprehensive middle school plan required “rethinking all our options.”

DCPS officials also pointed to city-wide needs more than a year ago when they removed Patrick Pope as principal of Hardy Middle School and tapped him to design and lead the new arts magnet middle school, despite objections by parents that this move would result in fewer middle school options.

DCPS spokesperson Fred Lewis did not respond to multiple requests last week for information on a city-wide planning process for middle schools.  The only existing middle school plan for the District is the Ward 5 Great Schools plan, which is defined by a political boundary and is not city-wide.

Former Chancellor Michelle Rhee reassigned Pope from principal of the successful Hardy Middle School in May 2010 despite the objections of parents, teachers and students.  Rhee tasked Pope with creating the arts-focused magnet middle school that was to open in Fall 2011.

Pope is now principal of Savoy Elementary in southeast DC.

A blue ribbon advisory panel was created to guide the planning of the new school.  Design and funding concerns delayed the new school’s opening from 2011 to 2012, according to an October 2010 email from DCPS, but no more updates had been provided to parents.

When asked last week about the status of the new arts magnet middle school, DCPS Spokesperson Lewis had this to say:

We stopped the planning process for a proposed arts magnet middle school last school year with the appointment of Patrick Pope as principal of Savoy Elementary. This school year, faced with major questions to resolve around school closures and a city-wide demand for a comprehensive middle school plan, we are rethinking all of our options.

Lewis did not address follow-up questions about the status of any city-wide comprehensive middle school plan.

While District parents often feel comfortable sending their children to their neighborhood elementary school, they usually find their local middle school to be unacceptable. As a result, there is heavy competition amongst out-of-boundary families for lottery slots to two successful middle schools, Deal and Hardy.

Deal Middle School, in Tenleytown, has 83-89% reading and math proficiency scores, and is in high demand with 61% of its spots filled by in-boundary students. Hardy Middle School, just north of Georgetown, is an arts-focused middle school with 66-75% proficiency scores and only 13% in-boundary enrollment. 

Most other public middle schools have proficiency scores below 50% and aging buildings.  Deal and Hardy were each modernized in the past 5 years.

The lack of middle school options forces many parents to move to suburbs in Fairfax, Montgomery, Arlington and Prince George’s Counties.  Others who don’t move often take their chances with the out-of-boundary lotteries for Deal and Hardy, or apply to charter middle schools such as Washington Latin.

When the district reassigned Pope from Hardy, out-of-boundary parents worried this move would reduce middle school options. Some think his removal was meant to bring in a principal who would better recruit in-boundary students into Hardy, thus further reducing middle school options for families out of the Hardy boundary of Palisades and Georgetown. 

Rhee promised these parents that their options would in fact increase with the creation of a new arts magnet middle school led by Pope. The cancellation of this school, as a result, is particularly hard for parents to accept. 

DCPS cites the need for a city-wide comprehensive middle school plan, and yet the only one that exists is the Ward 5 plan. After several months of meetings with Ward 5 parents, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced last month a plan for 3 new middle schools in Ward 5.

However, Ward 5 is a political boundary that has no relation to school boundaries.  Just as half of Ward 3 children feed into Ward 2’s Hardy Middle School, and half of Ward 2 children feed into Shaw @ Garnet Patterson Middle School in Ward 1, so Ward 5 children feed into districts in neighboring wards and vice versa.  The only reason to plan middle schools by ward is if a Councilmember demanded such a plan.

DCPS is correct that a city-wide, comprehensive middle school plan is what is needed.  Parents were led to believe that such a plan existed and was the basis for tapping Pope to lead a new arts magnet middle school. 

If a city-wide middle school plan is being created, DCPS should be more transparent about it as it has been with its Ward 5 school planning.  If such a plan is not in the works, then it should become a top priority for DCPS.  A comprehensive, city-wide middle school plan is the most effective way to retain District families who will otherwise move to the suburbs.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.