Photo by Mike_fleming on Flickr.

The committee working on changes in DC’s school assignment policy has floated some proposals. They’re not as radical as some feared—or perhaps hoped—but there’s still plenty of fodder for debate.

The DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment has been working for 6 months on the knotty issue of DC’s school boundaries and feeder patterns, which haven’t been fundamentally changed since 1968. Now they’ve unveiled three possible systems that reflect different policy priorities, along with proposed new boundaries for DCPS elementary schools.

Until now, the committee members and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), Abigail Smith, would only say that “everything” was “on the table.”  That open-endedness led to much speculation. Some residents on the geographic fringes of the coveted Deal-Wilson feeder pattern feared they would be assigned to lower-performing secondary schools. Others imagined the committee adopting a lottery for all students, with an algorithm that would ensure socioeconomic diversity.

The committee members haven’t necessarily taken anything off the table, since they haven’t committed to any one of the 3 proposals. They say they’re simply examples of how different elements might be combined, and they could still be rearranged in a “one from column A, one from column B” approach. But at least we’re now getting a menu rather than an unlimited smorgasbord of possibilities.

Some suspected that the committee wasn’t only trying to adjust outdated lines on a map but had broader social goals in mind. There’s now confirmation that they were correct. At a community meeting at Dunbar High School on Saturday morning, Smith kicked off the proceedings with two questions that the committee has been asking and that she now threw open to the public:

  • Do our policies reflect our vision for public education in the city?  
  • How can these policies help accelerate our work to increase quality at all our schools?

Given the inequities in the school system, it makes sense to ask those questions. But none of the proposals engages in radical social engineering. None, for example, adopts the controlled choice approach that would try to ensure a certain level of socioeconomic diversity at as many schools as possible.

Set-asides to varying degrees

On the other hand, all of them include, to varying degrees, a certain number of seats that would be set aside for out-of-boundary students, with preferences attached to certain categories of applicants. One category would be students whose assigned schools are “low-performing,” a term that has yet to be firmly defined but would probably include a combination of test scores, attendance, and other measures.

Those schools generally have high-poverty populations. And presumably, the schools using the set-asides would be the higher-performing ones, which generally have wealthier populations.

The set-asides range from a minimum of 10% to 20%. While that would provide high-performing schools with some socioeconomic diversity, it wouldn’t do anything to improve low-performing schools. In fact, it could actually harm them by draining off the most engaged parents and most motivated students.

Looked at another way, though, it provides a much-needed escape hatch for those who live in areas with sub-standard schools.

"My child will not be a sacrifice,” said one mother at the Dunbar meeting who lives in Ward 7 and wants to preserve her right to apply to an out-of-bounds school. “I shouldn’t be penalized because we bought a house where we could afford one.”

Carrots and sticks

In addition to the out-of-boundary set-asides, the draft proposals employ some carrot-and-stick techniques to try to spread middle-class and engaged parents across the system more evenly, especially at the middle and high school levels. Right now most of them are either in the charter sector or clumped at Deal MS, Wilson HS, or one of the selective DCPS high schools.

The “stick” part of the proposal may not be as bad as some anticipated. Parents at Lafayette and Bancroft elementary schools, currently in the Deal-Wilson feeder pattern, wouldn’t simply be assigned to less desirable destination schools. In the scenario that is closest to the current system, Example B, the only elementary school taken out of that feeder pattern is Eaton, whose students would be assigned to Hardy MS.

Two others, Bancroft and Shepherd, might get feeder rights to a proposed new Center City Middle School. Oyster-Adams, a preschool-through-8th grade school, might feed into Cardozo High School instead of Wilson. And Hardy, which currently feeds into Wilson, could feed into a proposed new high school if Wilson became too crowded.

The “carrot” part of the proposals includes establishing specialized programming, such as dual-language or International Baccalaureate, to make schools attractive.

More uncertainty

But two of the scenarios would introduce a greater level of uncertainty into school assignments. In Example A, both elementary and middle school students would list their choices for a set of nearby schools that, at the elementary level, might include a charter school. They would be assigned to one of those choices, but not necessarily their first choice.

In Example C, only middle school students would get a “choice set,” and every middle school would have some kind of specialized program. And in both A and C, admission to high school would be entirely by lottery.

The lotteries might have preferences for factors like proximity and students in specialized programs like dual-language. Still, the lack of predictability could drive some families out of the system, and possibly out of the District.

At the Dunbar meeting, one Bancroft Elementary parent predicted that families like his won’t stick around if they can no longer rely on going to Deal and Wilson. Rather than trying to improve the other schools they’re assigned to, he said, “they’ll leave.”

Working groups

Smith’s presentation at Dunbar was combined with discussions of the proposals by “working groups,” composed of anyone who happened to show up. The groups sat at round tables in Dunbar’s impressive atrium, and each group had a trained facilitator who took notes.

Everyone in attendance also received numerous forms that asked for their reactions to the ideas. The group I joined included residents of Capitol Hill, Petworth, Ft. Dupont, and Mt. Pleasant.

A similar community meeting took place Saturday afternoon at Anacostia High School, and a third will be held tomorrow from 5:30 to 8:30 pm at Coolidge High School.

There was a lot to take in on Saturday morning, when those in attendance were seeing the detailed proposals for the first time and trying to simultaneously digest and discuss them. Sometimes the conversation at my table veered off onto tangents or overlooked important aspects of the scenarios.

But all in all, it was a remarkable instance of democracy in action: a group of strangers sitting around a table and having a civil conversation that touched on potentially explosive issues of race and class. No doubt the process won’t end up pleasing everyone, but the DME’s Office seems to be making a genuine effort to hear what everyone is saying.

The conversation will continue, with more meetings scheduled at all 3 locations later in the month. Additional community meetings will take place in May and June, before the final plan is released in September. Those who want to participate online should soon be able to do so at, a site that is not yet live.

No doubt future discussions will go deeper, but some questions may stubbornly recur. Smith began the Dunbar meeting by saying that the question she gets most often is: Why now? Why not wait until all schools have improved before redrawing boundaries and feeder patterns?

Smith explained, as she has before, that although DCPS has been “working feverishly” to raise school quality across the board, it could take a long time to get there. And given the irrationalities in the current assignment system, she said, we have to do both things at the same time.

Over two hours later, the next-to-last question Smith got was: Why now? Why not improve the schools first, and then redraw the boundaries?