Stuart-Hobson MS by DCPS.

The ongoing review of DC’s school boundaries and feeder patterns has captured the attention of the entire DC education community. One unexpected and vitally important development is Councilmember David Catania’s new focus on middle schools. 

While some are optimistic about the boundary review process, there’s also a lot of anxiety about whether it will yield any benefit if there are not enough quality seats to go around.

At a recent DC Council Education Committee hearing, parents and others identified DCPS’s middle schools as a key part of the problem. Catania, chair of the committee, called on DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson to come up with a plan for improving middle schools within a month.

And yesterday Councilmember Muriel Bowser introduced a non-binding resolution calling the dearth of high-quality DCPS middle schools “unsustainable and unjust.” The resolution calls for all middle-school students to have access to the kinds of offerings available at Deal Middle School in Ward 3.

In Ward 6, where I live, most schools see a 25% to 50% drop in enrollment between preschool and 5th grade. While there’s no hard data accessible on where they go, I know some parents enroll their 5th graders as out-of-boundary students at elementary schools with more desirable feeder patterns—like Hyde-Addison, which leads to Hardy Middle School and Wilson High School. Some move their 5th graders from DCPS into charters or private schools, which often start their middle-school track at 5th grade.

Ward 6 parents and principals have been trying to address this issue since 2009, when the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization (CHPSPO) surveyed the community.  (Disclosure: I serve as Secretary of CHPSPO.) Based on the survey results, parents and principals drafted a plan for strengthening middle schools on Capitol Hill.

DCPS worked hard to get community input, and in July 2010 then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee approved the bulk of the plan and extended it from Capitol Hill to all of Ward 6. Today, a few elements of the plan have been implemented, including the expansion of Capitol Hill Montessori@Logan,  which serves grades PK3-6, into its own building. However, DCPS has been slow to implement elements that would actually strengthen existing middle schools, and its efforts have been underfunded and not well coordinated.

Three Ward 6 middle schools

Ward 6 has three middle schools: Stuart-Hobson, Eliot-Hine, and Jefferson.  (In addition, Walker-Jones Education Campus serves grades PK3 through 8th.) The plan called for renovations at both Stuart-Hobson and Eliot-Hine. Funding to modernize Stuart-Hobson came through only after parents engaged in a lot of politicking, number-crunching, and fundraising.  The project remains incomplete, with parents once again leaning hard on the city to finish its full scope.  And plans to renovate Eliot-Hine MS have been delayed by several years.

Under the Ward 6 plan, both Eliot-Hine and Jefferson were to adopt the Middle Years International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, designed to stimulate critical and analytical thinking. Both schools feed into Eastern High School, which has also applied to be an IB school. Generally it takes several years for a school to be approved by the International Baccalaureate Organization.

While the process is moving forward, it has been slow to take off. Although the IB Organization approved Jefferson in 2010, the school didn’t hire an IB Coordinator until fall 2012. As with other parts of the Ward 6 plan, parents and principals have been left to try to implement it largely on their own, without clear coordination from DCPS’s central office.

Progress has also been stunted by the the DCPS budget crisis every spring. And when the DCPS budget is frozen, funds for things like IB teacher training can be held up. Even when the plan is working, middle school principals are not communicating its successes to elementary school communities.

That’s part of a broader problem. Throughout DCPS, there does not seem to be much deliberate, strategic coordination among principals and schools within a feeder pattern. On a recent visit to my child’s school, Catania brought up this issue, which CHPSPO families have been raising with DCPS for years.

Under DCPS’ “cluster” structure, Instructional Superintendents appear to be aligned by grades rather than feeder patterns. For the most part, each superintendent oversees a group of elementary schools, middle schools, or high schools.  That structure does not lend itself to collaboration between principals at feeder and destination schools. Add on high-stakes testing, and it’s obvious that principals will focus on the health of their individual schools rather than where their students are headed.

Need for clear feeder patterns

Many DCPS elementary schools are in high demand. But without healthy middle schools and clear, predictable paths for students to move as a cohort through high school, DCPS’ ability to keep students in the system is limited. It’s ironic that DCPS—which, unlike the charter school system, is centrally run—does not have a competitive advantage when it comes to feeder patterns.

Improving middle schools won’t be easy, and some factors lie outside Henderson’s control. During the committee hearing, she mentioned the misalignment of grades created by charters starting enrollment at 5th grade. She also described the challenge of equalizing offerings like libraries and foreign language at all middle schools. With limited funds, that’s even more difficult than developing specialized programs like IB at a few schools. 

Still, when Catania’s deadline arrives less than a month from now, I hope to see a comprehensive strategy for change. For Ward 6,  a good place to start is the 2010 middle school plan that has already been developed by the school system in collaboration with the community.