Wilson High School. Photo from DCPS.

An increasingly popular Wilson High School accepted no middle school students from outside of its boundary this year, according to parents.  As the drawbridge to the rest of the city goes up on the only public high school serving most of northwest DC, the Wilson boundary could become the new line between educational haves and have nots.

Some advocates are floating a potential solution: return the building that now houses Duke Ellington High to its historic use as Western High School.  Ellington, an application-only arts high school, is located in Burleith, just northwest of Georgetown.

The District would then need to find or build a new home for Ellington in a more central location. Some have suggested the under-enrolled Roosevelt High in Ward 4. Its location, on the west side of Petworth, is only ½ mile from the Petworth Metro, which could make it much easier for kids from across the city to reach the school.

The Wilson High School boundary is vast.  Located in Tenleytown, Wilson is the public high school for most students west of 16th Street and many in Southwest DC.  It’s three feeder middle schools are Hardy, Deal, and Oyster-Adams.

Current high school boundaries. Image by David Alpert using Google Maps and data from OCTO.

Historically, Wilson has accepted many out-of-boundary students from across the city, creating a diverse environment. That was until recent modernization of the building, as well as greater interest in public schools by in-boundary parents, boosted the number of in-boundary kids going there.

Wilson now faces imminent overcrowding.  Built for 1550 students, Wilson housed 1633 students last year and houses about 1700 this year according to Wilson parents.  As Wilson becomes unable to accept out-of-boundary students, DC could see a new educational dividing line.

Wilson wasn’t always the only public high school for such a large swath of the city.  From its construction in 1897 until 1977, Western High School in Burleith served much of northwest DC.  During the 1970s, the premier Duke Ellington School for the Arts was developed. It has resided in the former Western High building since then.

Most Ellington students are driven or bused to the school on the western edge of Ward 2 from east of Rock Creek Park, many from northeast or southeast DC.  Ward 2 councilmember Jack Evans has long favored moving Ellington to a more central location, and returning Western to its historic use. Councilmember-elect David Grosso also supports the move.

When a draft proposal from the office of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee was leaked in 2010, Ellington’s board reacted swiftly that it was rightly “appalled” by the proposal to move Ellington to the former Logan Elementary School building on G Street NE near Union Station.

However, the Ellington board was clear that they weren’t opposed to moving, but rather opposed to moving to Logan, a building “whose sole qualification is its vacancy.”  In their letter, they write, “If Ellington were to relocate, it should only be to a building that truly addresses the requirements of a school with Ellington’s unique mission.”

Any new space for Ellington would have to meet the unique needs of one of the top arts high schools in the US, such as dance and recording studios, gallery space, and so on.

The letter goes on to say, “An example of such a facility is the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a performing arts high school in New York City recently built at a cost of approximately $78 million.”

Ellington is about to undergo an $82 million renovation that will require moving the student body to another location for 2 years.

Some might object that moving Ellington out of Burleith is just a ploy to provide wealthy Georgetown residents their own high school.  In fact, a new Western High School would draw from Hardy and Francis-Stevens middle schools, both of which currently draw almost entirely out-of-boundary students.

A new Western High School could thus lower the drawbridge of upper Northwest high schools to the rest of the city.  Both Western and Wilson would have capacity for out-of-boundary students, thus maintaining diverse, high-quality public high schools in DC.

The move would be a boon for Roosevelt-area families if Ellington co-located with Roosevelt, as some advocates are suggesting.  By sharing non-arts courses and pooling their enrollment for budgeting purposes, Ellington could expand in size and both schools could offer more specialized programming.

Preserving diversity in high quality schools should be a top goal as DCPS examines whether to close schools and redraw boundaries.  Are there other solutions to maintaining diversity at high-quality public high schools in DC?

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.