McKinley Tech Middle School. Photo by the author.

Faced with lacking middle and high school choices, many Ward 5 families choose to send their kids to schools west of Rock Creek Park. DCPS hopes to bring them back with three reorganized middle school programs, including a brand new Brookland Middle School.

My husband and I moved to the District in 2004 to start our professional careers after college, but we are staying in the city because it is evolving with our circumstances and continuing to meet our needs. Now, we are homeowners in Ward 5 and have started a family here.

Yes, it’s wonderful to access the free museums and living in our nation’s capital is extraordinary, but any parent will tell you that staying involves more than an appreciation for nightlife, fine dining, and the theatre. Educating our children in a place that we love is of the utmost priority.

While the supply of quality school spots has yet to meet the surge in demand, I feel the system is headed in the right direction. DC Public Schools is expanding popular programs and making new investments, while the DC Public Charter School Board is approving charters for new schools meant to fill niche needs and diversify educational offerings.

Successful schools offer a path from elementary through high school

Like many parents choosing to settle in the District and raise a family, I started attending open houses while pregnant with my first child. We actively researched school options, not just for elementary school, but for middle and high school as well. The most popular school programs in the city are those that have a viable path of instruction from elementary to high school.

However, in order to access these school programs many parents in Ward 5 are resolved to playing their odds in the DCPS out-of-bounds-lottery and the individual DCPCS lotteries. DCPS estimates that 1,326 students make the trek from Ward 5 to public schools west of Rock Creek Park, exacerbating the schools’ overcrowding issues. Others take calculated risks on new charter schools that have no proven track record, but market promising expansion through middle school.

These parents don’t make the decision to enroll in other wards to avoid participating in their community. They do it to avoid the inevitable reality that by 4th grade, you’re going to have to reenter the lottery process to position your child to access top quality middle and high schools.

Ward 5 needs standalone middle schools

Ward 5 has several “education campuses” for students between preschool and 8th grade, but they do not sufficiently meet the needs of the middle school-aged population. They don’t have the critical mass necessary to offer appropriate staff and instruction for important prerequisites like algebra and foreign language, which are required for many of the city’s top application schools. They lack the support spaces, gyms, outdoor fields, and locker rooms necessary to hold music lessons, lab work, and team sports.

The Ward 5 Council on Education, a nonprofit of residents who advocate for better education in the ward, has been actively lobbying DCPS for a standalone middle school. They believe that establishing a competitive middle school with rich programming would improve the educational outcomes of current middle school children and “reclaim” Ward 5 children from other wards.

In response to lobbying from parents, DCPS officially unveiled its “Ward 5 Great Schools Initiative” in 2011, which focused on how to restructure Ward 5 schools. After outreach via community meetings, surveys, and online, DCPS released its final proposals for Ward 5 schools in March 2012.

The plan sought to restore the majority of the ward’s education campuses back to elementary school models and create not one, but three improved middle school programs. Browne Education Campus would continue to serve preschool-8th grade students and get a new an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, while McKinley Technology High School would add a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) middle school. Finally, DCPS would build a brand new middle school with curriculum in arts and world languages at the former Brookland Elementary School site on Michigan Avenue NE.

DCPS chose these sites to serve the southeastern, central, and northern parts of the ward, respectively. Ward 5 has some neighborhoods where residents commute the longest distances for school, so residents were pleased with this more localized approach.

In addition, the proposal would expand the feeder high school options available to Ward 5 residents, allowing parents to select the best program for their child that complements their middle school studies.

Residents eagerly await the new schools

Many stakeholders applauded DCPS’s plan and are eager to see the school offerings materialize. Currently, Browne Education Campus is beginning the application process to obtain IB accreditation, McKinley Technology Middle School is on schedule to open in August fully enrolled with a waitlist, and construction will begin this summer on Brookland Middle School, which should open in 2014.

I am particularly thrilled about Brookland Middle School, where my children will be assigned. DCPS promises rigorous arts instruction, integrating it into lesson plans and inviting professional artists to the school for performances and residencies. Brookland will also offer at least two world languages taught by specialized teachers where students will be able to earn high school credits.

Our kids will have a competitive middle school that prepares them for academic success in high school and beyond and our neighborhoods will benefit from access to shared spaces for community activities. However, that will only happen if DCPS delivers this school as promised, the neighborhood embraces this new facility as a valuable community asset, and all stakeholders commit to its success.

A centrally-located middle school in the heart of a neighborhood of engaged residents makes for a promising combination that can propel community camaraderie, enhance neighborhood activities, and attract great families to our ward. It’s time to invest in our own community and allow our children to matriculate with their neighbors.

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Tara Jamison is an avid public school supporter and lives with her family in Fort Lincoln, DC. She is a proud Duke University and Georgetown University Business School graduate. She encourages everyone to actively participate in their community and get involved with their local schools!