Bancroft Elementary. Photo from DCPS website.

As a committee works to redesign DC’s school assignment policies, some parents who are happy with the status quo are urging caution.

In yesterday’s post we looked at issues the Advisory Committee on Student Assignment is grappling with as it reviews school boundaries and feeder patterns, which haven’t been overhauled since 1968. Today we’ll look at two groups affiliated with schools in Northwest DC that like the attendance zones they’re in and don’t want them to change.

One group is made up of parents and prospective parents at Bancroft Elementary in Mt. Pleasant. The other is affiliated with Lafayette Elementary in Chevy Chase DC. Both have sent letters to the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) and other DC officials expressing their hope that the schools’ current boundary and feeder patterns will be maintained. The DME, Abigail Smith, is in charge of the boundary overhaul process.

Both Bancroft and Lafayette currently feed into Deal Middle School and Wilson High School in Ward 3. Bancroft students also have the choice of attending the Columbia Heights Education Campus, but few do so.

The Mt. Pleasant Family Association sent its letter about Bancroft, with 137 signatures, earlier this month. The letter said that many young families move to the area in part because of its “access to excellent schools,” and predicted those families would go elsewhere if the feeder pattern changed.

Josh Louria, a spokesperson for the group, said that a majority of its members are prospective Bancroft parents like himself, since the DME’s office has said that current students would be exempt from a change in policy.

Lafayette letter has 700 signatures

The Lafayette School Boundary Working Group has about 700 signatures on its letter, which the group originally sent to both Mayor Vincent Gray and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson in May 2013, when DCPS was in charge of the review process. Leadership of the process was later transferred to the DME’s office, and the group has since sent their letter directly to that office twice.

The letter speaks of the “central role” that Deal and Wilson “have long played in our community’s history and daily life.” The group said it hopes those conducting the review will uphold “the principles of proximity and community that have long guided” enrollment rules in DC.

Claudia Lujan, a senior policy advisor to the DME, said her office and the advisory committee “are considering all the issues raised by these communities, as we are doing with the proposals and petitions we have received from across the city.”

Jenny Backus, a spokesperson for the Lafayette group, said it has been meeting for about a year and a half and has a core group of about 35 people, with several hundred attending larger meetings. About half are current parents at the school and half are prospective ones. Community members and alumni of the schools have also signed the letter.

Backus said that parents feel confused about the goals of the boundary review. She and others from the community have participated in focus groups led by the DME’s office, and she said the discussions have largely addressed qualitative issues, like what parents value in a school, rather than boundaries per se.

Both Backus and Louria also said the process feels rushed, and the fact that it’s happening with a mayoral election looming is another source of concern. And both said that DCPS should improve schools across the District before engaging in the process of redrawing boundaries.

"It seems like it’s being proposed as a way to improve schools elsewhere,” Backus said.

Diversity and school boundaries

Some argue that one way to improve weaker schools, most of which are also high-poverty, is to increase the number of middle-class families attending them. But Louria said that middle-class parents at Bancroft “need DCPS to meet them halfway.” If the District provided more help to high-poverty schools, he said, “folks wouldn’t feel that the school’s improvement would be all on their backs.”

The issue of diversity is one that frequently comes up in boundary review discussions. As more neighborhood parents send their kids to Ward 3 schools, the out-of-boundary students, who are generally less affluent and are more likely to be racial minorities, are being squeezed out.

Keeping Bancroft, which is 73% Hispanic and 71% low-income, within the Deal and Wilson boundaries would at least help ensure some diversity there. Lafayette is geographically closer, but its population is 73% white and only 7% low income.

Some have suggested that a proportion of slots at Deal and Wilson should be reserved for out-of-bounds students. But Louria says Bancroft parents wouldn’t want to have to take their chances in a lottery. And Backus says that Lafayette parents value diversity, but that “everyone wants proximity to good schools,” including parents in other wards.

"We don’t want the city to become divided in this process,” Backus said. “We want to come together to make all the schools stronger, but we have questions about whether drawing lines is the way to do that.”

Overcrowding at Wilson

One immutable fact is that Wilson, whose boundaries include almost half of DC, is seriously overcrowded. Recently modernized to accommodate 1,550 students, it currently houses almost 1700.

But Louria and Backus say there are other solutions that wouldn’t require their schools to be zoned out of Deal and Wilson. One that both mentioned was turning the building that now houses Duke Ellington High School of the Arts in Georgetown back into a neighborhood high school. That would relieve some of the pressure on Wilson.

That proposal has been floated for the last several years.  Some say it would make sense to put a magnet school like Ellington in a more central location and closer to Metro.

Louria and Backus seem to feel that idea isn’t on the advisory committee’s table (although committee members frequently say that indeed everything is). But they may be surprised.

"Some people are anxious about things they might not need to be anxious about,” said Matthew Frumin, a member of the committee. “And some people have yet to focus on options that if they did might make them anxious.”

He says “the real debate and discussion will begin after April 5th,” when the committee will unveil several draft scenarios for student assignment. At that point, Frumin says, people will “have something much more concrete to react to.”