Photo by the author.

Eastern High School’s slogan is “The Pride of Capitol Hill,” but much of its student body doesn’t actually live in the neighborhood. This fall the school will begin offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, which it hopes will both benefit its current students and also attract more families who live nearby, including more affluent families.

Eastern has an illustrious past that includes a history of champion athletic teams and award-winning musical groups. But beginning in the 1990s the school fell on hard times, churning through 11 principals in 10 years.

DCPS decided to phase out the old Eastern, so that by the 2010-11 school year it had only a 12th grade. In the fall of 2011, after an extensive renovation and the hiring of a new principal, Eastern restarted with only a 9th grade. This year the school also has a 10th grade, and it will keep adding a grade a year until it reaches its full capacity.

The new Eastern has many strengths. The renovated building is beautiful, the faculty is largely young and energetic, and the principal, Rachel Skerritt, is universally admired for her combination of warmth and authority.

The school has a student newspaper and TV station. And, amazingly, its mock trial team recently made it to the finals to compete against Banneker and School Without Walls, both of which are application high schools with four-year student bodies.

But the school, located at 1700 East Capitol Street on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, hasn’t yet been able to attract many of the more affluent families living in the charming row houses to its west. 77% of Eastern’s 500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 25% need special education services. Nor is its population racially diverse, with 98% of its students African-American.

In recent years, some middle-class and upper-middle-class Capitol Hill families have been enrolling their children in preschool and elementary school at neighborhood public schools. But as their children get older, they begin to depart for private or charter schools or compete for out-of-boundary slots at public schools in Ward 3. By middle school, almost all of them are gone.

Administrators and area parents push for IB program

For the past several years DCPS and some Capitol Hill parents have been working on a plan they hope will entice more families to stay. Two middle schools that are feeders for Eastern, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, have applied for authorization to offer a prestigious international educational program designed for 6th to 10th graders, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years program.

With the rebirth of Eastern, DCPS extended that application to include the 9th and 10th grades at Eastern as well. Bob Smith, the IB manager for DCPS, says that the IB organization probably won’t decide on the Middle Years application until the summer of 2015.

At the same time, Eastern applied for a separate IB program, the Diploma program, designed for 11th and 12th grades. Just last week the IB organization granted that application, and this fall the school will begin offering it to a hand-picked group of 18-20 students.

The Middle Years and Diploma programs use similar methods and both aim to inspire creative and analytical thinking, but they’re implemented differently. The Middle Years program extends to an entire school, with all teachers and all students participating.

The Diploma program, on the other hand, is limited to a subgroup of students who commit to following a challenging curriculum. Students must learn two foreign languages, take a course on critical thinking called “Theory of Knowledge,” and write an “extended essay” on a topic of “global significance.” At the end of the program students take exams that are graded by outside examiners, and they receive an IB diploma only if they achieve a minimum score. Students outside the program can take one or more individual IB classes, but they won’t get the IB diploma.

Overall, the IB approach stands in marked contrast to the current focus on standardized testing, and it may well appeal to middle-class families. But will it be enough to induce Capitol Hill parents to keep their kids in neighborhood schools?

Joe Weedon, a parent of two children at Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill, is part of a group of 20 or so families who intend to do just that. His children, he says, are “class of 2023 and 2025” at Eastern. But Weedon, who has been involved in bringing the Middle Years IB program to Jefferson and Eliot-Hine, has also had his frustrations. He says that DCPS has failed to stick to its timeline for implementing the Middle Years program and has reneged on some of its budgetary commitments. (Weedon is also a contributor to Greater Greater Education.)

Affluent families would obviously benefit from having the option of sending their kids to what they feel is a high-quality local school. But they might not be the only ones who benefit. Recent research indicates that low-income students do better when they attend schools with high-income peers.

IB program will serve existing students, who aren’t the typical IB student body

In any event, Eastern administrators say their primary focus is on the students they have now rather than the ones they might attract. Those are the students who will be starting the rigorous Diploma program this fall.

Many of the schools that offer the program are either private schools or public schools serving affluent suburban populations. One DCPS school, Banneker, offers the Diploma program, but it’s an application-only school. Will an IB Diploma program work at a non-selective, high-poverty school like Eastern?

Absolutely, says Bob Smith at DCPS, citing examples in Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit.

But Amy Boccardi, the IB coordinator at Eastern, says that when she saw a video of IB schools at a training session recently, she thought, “Those kids don’t look like our kids.”

Not that Boccardi was discouraged. Her next thought was, “We’re going to have to make a video ourselves and send it to IB,” to show that kids like those at Eastern can succeed in the program. Still, the question remains.

And Eastern’s challenges continue. With Spingarn High School closing next year, for example, Eastern expects to receive about 50 new students, and it’s unclear how easy it will be to integrate them into the student body.

But there are lots of people rooting for the school’s success. It has the support of an active alumni association, and a group of local businesses called Companies for Causes has committed to helping the school reach its goal of a 100% graduation rate. Perhaps most important, it has a clear-eyed but inspirational leader in Principal Skerritt.

Whatever Eastern’s demographics may become in the long term, here’s hoping that by the summer of 2015 there’s an IB video featuring a group of graduating Eastern seniors proudly holding their IB Diplomas.