Photo by OregonDOT on Flickr.

This is part 4 of a series on education in DC. See part 1, part 2, and part 3.

If diversity is a worthwhile goal for DC schools, but the numbers are moving in the opposite direction, what could DC do?

We’ve talked about how some DC public schools are becoming so desirable that they’re attracting in-boundary, wealthy families and pushing out the kids from elsewhere in the city who have gone to these schools in the past. This may create greater segregation in the public schools, where only well-off families can enjoy the good schools but can’t enjoy the benefits of diversity.

Raleigh, North Carolina had an explicit policy of trying to draw school boundaries or include kids from out of boundaries so that each school had some lower-income students in it, but no more than 35%.

Raleigh found that the 35% threshold was a good one to include many kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who could benefit from being a part of a school with more privileged kids, but not so much as to create overconcentration and diminish the outcomes for the highest-performing students.

Should DC set a similar goal?

There are essentially 2 ways to include out-of-boundary, poorer children in the most exclusive public schools: make the schools bigger, and entice some in-boundary families to go elsewhere.

The old status quo was essentially that not enough families felt the school was “good enough” and therefore opted out of public education, making room, but that’s ending.

One option is to add more school capacity, creating new space for out-of-boundary kids. Mary Cheh has secured funding to expand Deal Middle School, and is pushing for a new middle school in Ward 3. If there were more and larger schools to fit more kids, then there would again be out-of-boundary spaces.

Some argued, when Wilson High School was being modernized, that it was good to keep the school smaller. In part, the reason was to avoid having a huge high school that could become impersonal, but there was another oft-cited reason: if not all families who want to go to Wilson can, some will go to others, like Eastern, and in doing so make that a better school. Eastern, at Stadium-Armory, does not yet have many well-off families sending kids there, but that is poised to change.

There might be ways to avoid just having another Ward 3 school draw the well-off families from Capitol Hill; for example, DC could dedicate some of the new capacity explicitly to kids in the free or reduced-price lunch program. This would resemble Raleigh’s program of explicitly fostering income diversity.

Should specialized or magnet programs migrate eastward?

The second possibility is to create programs that woo families from exclusive schools to go elsewhere. Specialized schools and magnet programs might do this. What if a new technology-focused graduate program at Saint Elizabeths also included a high school component, either at the campus or in one of the nearby schools? Montgomery Blair’s nationally-known science and technology program is in Silver Spring, and at one time, Silver Spring was not quite the highly desirable place it is today.

Some of DC’s current specialized programs are actually located in some of the most desirable locations. Hardy, in Glover Park, has a specialized arts program. Duke Ellington is an arts-focused high school and is in Georgetown. School Without Walls is in Foggy Bottom; that’s because it’s affiliated with GW.

Should any of these programs move? When Michelle Rhee reassigned Hardy principal Patrick Pope, the initial objective was to create an arts-focused middle school somewhere else that could draw from the entire city, and let Hardy evolve into more of a neighborhood school.

Should Ellington always stay in Georgetown? Most of its students aren’t from the immediate area, and it’s not the most transit-accessible location. Could Ellington go into an undersubscribed school building, boosting that school and getting the school closer to more of its students, and making room for a school west of Rock Creek to relieve Wilson?

Certainly, DC already has some of this. McKinley Technology High School is in Eckington. Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School is in Carver-Langston. However, these haven’t (yet, at least) created such demand to uncrowd the upper Northwest schools.

Magnet programs could explicitly include kids from the area

If some of the most desirable programs were located in less privileged parts of the District, having the eastward draw would inherently free up space in competitive schools. DC could also consider ensuring that at least some (perhaps about a third) lower-income kids from the surrounding area can go to the competitive school.

Columbia University created a specialized school which included many children of faculty, and quickly became in high demand. However, Columbia also set aside a number of spots for kids living in the immediate neighborhood, which around Columbia are very diverse.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the top magnet school, Booker T. Washington, is in the worst part of town. It draws from all sections of the city, but also has an extra preference for kids from the 2 feeder schools in that area, whose students are almost all lower-income. Not every kid from those feeders gets in, but more do than if the admissions only looked at test scores.

What steps do you think DC could take to foster diversity while also maintaining and even increasing the educational quality of its schools?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.