Students walking to high school from Shutterstock.
The DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment released its proposals for changing school boundaries and feeder patterns on Saturday. It’s a subject that evokes strong emotions and opinions.
The committee, spearheaded by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), floated three different scenarios reflecting different combinations of policy objectives.
One example (Example B) would basically retain the current system of geographic boundaries and assigned schools, albeit with some changes. Most significantly, schools would set aside between 10% and 20% of their seats, depending on grade level, for out-of-boundary students whose assigned school is “low-performing.”
The other two proposals (Examples A and C) would use combinations of “choice sets” and lotteries for some grade levels. In a choice set situation, families would apply to several schools within a certain boundary and would be guaranteed a slot in one of them, but not necessarily their first choice. In Example A, elementary-level choice sets might include charter schools.
Lotteries might have preferences for proximity, low-performing assigned schools, and other factors. In both Examples A and C, admission to high school would be by citywide lottery only.
Do these proposals provide enough predictability to families who have made decisions about where to live based on existing boundaries? Do they go too far in trying to use the assignment process to promote equity? Or not far enough? Our contributors weigh in below, and we invite you to use the comments to join the conversation.
Sandra Moscoso: I’m really impressed by the massive organization on the DME’s part that is going into this effort. Regardless of how I feel about components of the policy examples, I can at least begin to envision scenarios.
The fact that the DME’s team is also publishing data behind this makes me hopeful that ideas will also come from parents and advocates who may not be directly involved in the committees, focus groups, or working groups.
On charter coordination: If including elementary charters in choice sets is on the table, that should be applicable to all charters, not just those who choose to participate. And in EVERY meeting I attended leading up to Saturday’s working group, someone raised the misalignment of grades between DCPS and charters. [Charters often start middle school at 5th grade, but DCPS starts it at 6th.] Why is this not reflected in any of the policy examples?
On citywide schools: The working group questionnaires put forth proximity preference for secondary citywide schools and NOT for elementary citywide schools. As the parent of both elementary and middle school students, I can confirm that proximity is much more important when getting a younger child to school.
With two proposals making all high schools lottery-only, I wonder if serious consideration is being given to removing high schools from the feeder track. The value of predictability is very quickly lost in that scenario. I sincerely hope this is not how this process will end.
Allison Link: I would be incredibly disappointed if Policy Example A were adopted. Eliminating neighborhood schools altogether would be a bad idea on several fronts. I currently work as a teacher’s assistant at Anne Beers Elementary School, and several of the kids I work with are second- or even third-generation Beers students. This policy would almost completely sever this meaningful tie between families, their communities, and their schools that remains prevalent in DCPS.
Additionally, if parents moving into a neighborhood don’t know which school their child will attend, the number of young families who choose to stay in DC as their children reach elementary age will diminish drastically.
Finally, a policy based on school choice would likely eliminate academic diversity altogether from DCPS schools, as the most accomplished and/or aggressive students and parents would clamor for the highest quality schools. DCPS already suffers from significant racial and socioeconomic segregation, and this policy would probably worsen that.
At the same time, holding onto the current neighborhood-school-only policy ignores the significant and lasting presence of charter schools in the DC area. For this reason, Example B doesn’t sit well with me either. It essentially ignores several of the problems we already face, such as the flight of families as their children reach middle-school age, and the low in-boundary percentages of many schools on the east side of town.
These thoughts might point me in the direction of Example C, but unfortunately I don’t think this compromise proposal totally gets the job done either. If students are entirely unsure of what high school they will attend, they might be unable to develop relationships with friends and future teachers/coaches/mentors through their siblings or older friends.
I like the idea of a lottery-based middle school system, as it would allow DCPS to spread its resources more evenly among middle schools across the district. But I wonder if we should then have a specific high school that students would attend once they get their middle school through a lottery.
David Alpert: Setting aside 10% of seats at a school for lower-income students seems like a great idea. The percentage probably should be 25%, but maybe 10% is what they could get.
I think having predictability is important. The pattern in DC of parents getting their kids into a good elementary school and then spending every year trying to get into a good middle school seems destructive. Parents should know where their kids will go to middle school.
Martin Moulton: I get the idea of a lottery-only high school scheme. High-schoolers can get around on their own. It would also give them a greater appreciation for the diversity of the city. BUT we don’t yet have enough high-performing seats to make that work.
With all the low income/black families in the District, I’m not clear on why a 25% low-income set-aside would be such a stretch. There is surely a tipping point when it’s probably counterproductive. But the small subset of those who need extra services will be better served in a 25%/75% arrangement than being warehoused with more students in need of extra attention and services.
Below high school, there should be more predictability. And we must simply stop acting as if the nation’s capital is a small southern hamlet rather than an international city. Every student needs to be at least bilingual.
I don’t have a dog in this race. And I realize many people are invested in their community/feeder expectations. But those special interests should have ZERO impact on how the system is designed for the future success of public schools.