Photo by sharonyau1995 on Flickr.

The long-awaited, or perhaps long-dreaded, DCPS boundary-drawing process has begun. While it’s bound to be painful for some, it’s also long overdue.

Yesterday a 20-member task force finally kicked off the review of DC school feeder patterns and boundaries that was originally supposed to have been finished by June 2013. The task force, led by the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, is scheduled to recommend changes by May. Then, after an opportunity for public comment (which will undoubtedly be utilized to the hilt), the recommendations will be finalized in September. A year later, for school year 2015-16, they’ll finally take effect.

In addition to boundaries, the task force may also consider whether at least some charter schools should give a preference to neighborhood residents and think about having feeder patterns that cross charter/DCPS lines. These are developments that would help create some much-needed coherence between the charter and traditional public school systems.



Although Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith says the timing has nothing to do with politics, it’s hard not to notice that the mayoral primary will be safely over by the time any recommendations emerge.

The big issue is boundaries and feeder patterns for middle and especially high schools. Parents currently zoned for Deal Middle School and Wilson High School—the most desirable, and most crowded, DCPS secondary schools—may be feeling nervous as they contemplate being relegated to schools with much lower performance records.

But this is the first time boundaries have been reconsidered since the 1970s, and obviously, much has changed. Schools in Ward 3, like Deal and Wilson, that were under-enrolled then are now bursting at the seams.  It no longer makes sense to have the Wilson catchment area swallowing what appears to be nearly half the District. Other high schools, like the newly reconstructed Dunbar, are half empty.

Generally speaking, the high school boundaries (as I once heard a principal observe) look as though they were drawn by a child with a crayon.

It may be true, as some have said, that redrawing the Wilson boundaries will result in an even whiter, more affluent school. But other areas of the District have become more diverse (which, in DC, generally means more white) and more affluent. So while Wilson will become less diverse, other schools will become more so.

Almost universally, parents these days say they want their kids to go to a school with a diverse student body. But very few are willing to have their kids be the pioneers in making a high-poverty, largely minority school more diverse. Far be it from me to cast stones in their direction. But sometimes, if change is going to occur, it has to be imposed.

It would be nice to think that this is a win-win situation, but that’s far from clear. Current students at neighborhood high schools other than Wilson may well benefit from an influx of more affluent families, who may insist that schools improve their offerings. But it’s not clear that affluent students will benefit from going to schools with a predominantly low-income population.

Studies, including one of Montgomery County, have shown that when poor students attend predominantly wealthy schools, they do better, and the wealthy students do none the worse. But if there are too few high-income students at a low-income school, it’s not clear that anyone does better. It’s also not clear how many affluent students need to attend a school in order to bring up its performance.

Still, change has to start somewhere. It would be nice if all schools were performing at the level of Deal and Wilson before the boundaries were redrawn. But that looks, to say the least, unlikely. While there’s no guarantee, there’s a better chance that schools outside of Ward 3 will improve if the school boundaries are redrawn in a way that reflects where people are choosing to live.

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Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools.