Photo by Chris Phan on Flickr.
The DC Public School system has released a detailed plan for implementing the new boundaries and feeder patterns adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray. While the plan answers a lot of questions, one big one is still open: Will Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser scrap the whole thing and start over again as she has promised?
The boundary overhaul involved months of public meetings and feedback sessions, where parents and other community members got a chance to ask questions. But when the plan was released, some questions were still unanswered.
The main one, of course, was whether the new mayor would keep the plan in place. Both of the leading candidates vowed to at least delay implementing the plan, and Muriel Bowser said she wanted to start the entire boundary discussion over again. She reiterated that position after her victory.
“I’m not of the belief that [if] anything happens in the next 58 days, it can’t be undone or tweaked in the first 100 days,” she told the Washington Post.
It may be difficult, though, for the new mayor to completely undo the roll-out. DC’s common school lottery, My School DC, will open on December 15th, before Bowser takes office, and it will be premised on the new boundaries. Students who want to attend their zoned school don’t have to participate in the lottery, but those who want to attend out-of-boundary or selective DC public schools do.
Last week, DCPS released a series of documents providing some details about how things would change under the plan. Some of those changes would take effect as soon as next fall if the plan remains in place.
Some families may decide to enter the My School DC lottery in December on the assumption the new plan will stay in place, and the program’s DC website will soon include a tool to help families find their assigned school under the plan. If Bowser rescinds the plan when she takes office in January, she’ll have to decide whether to re-start the lottery.
Exceptions include students who will be grandfathered in and those with older siblings in the system
The new boundaries won’t require students who are currently enrolled in their zoned DCPS school to switch schools, so they’re unlikely to enter the lottery. Students in 3rd grade or above will also be able to continue in their current feeder patterns if they want, as will younger students with older siblings attending their old zoned school as long as both siblings will overlap there for at least one year.
But under the new plan, students entering the DCPS system for the first time next fall will need to abide by the new boundaries, as will students switching to DCPS from the charter sector.
Details of the new boundary plan
Another aspect of the plan that could have affected the lottery requires that all DCPS schools set aside a certain percentage of their slots for out-of-boundary students. Elementary schools will need to set aside 10% of their seats, middle schools 15%, and high schools 20%. Those out-of-boundary seats are to be filled through the lottery.
It turns out that only one DCPS school is out of compliance with the new policy: Janney Elementary School in Ward 3, where only 7% of students are out-of-boundary. And even at Janney, changes won’t go into effect next fall. Because Janney is full to capacity, DCPS says it will work with the school to bump up the out-of-boundary percentage by the required three points in time for the fall of 2016.
The plan also sets up new feeder patterns that will allow students to continue in special programs, such as dual-language or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), when they move from one school to the next. The only change scheduled for next fall is that students at McKinley Middle School will have the right to continue their STEM education at H.D. Woodson High School.
Another change effective next fall applies to students who live over half a mile walking distance from their zoned elementary school. If there’s another elementary school that’s less than half a mile away from them, those students will get a lottery preference there.
Preschool rights for low-income families
One of the plan’s more popular aspects, which Bowser might want to preserve, calls for giving families zoned for high-poverty schools the right to send their children there for preschool. Under the current system, all families must enter the lottery for preschool seats.
Under the new plan, families who live within the boundary for a Title 1 school—defined under federal law as a school where at least 40% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—will get a guaranteed preschool slot. The idea is to give those families more predictability and to allow schools to capture their in-boundary families early, before they attend other preschools where they can find slots.
That part of the plan will begin to take effect next fall, but only as a pilot program in five Title 1 schools. DCPS says that it can’t open more preschool classrooms right away because of various requirements about things like preschool staffing and space.
Even though parents at those five Title 1 schools will have a right to preschool seats, they’ll still need to enter the My School DC lottery in order to claim them.
Four of the schools DCPS chose for the pilot program are clearly high-poverty, but the fifth, Van Ness Elementary, is not currently open. The school, located near the Navy Yard and Nationals Park, is in an area that used to be home to public housing projects. After those projects were torn down a decade ago, the elementary school that served them closed as well.
But the neighborhood, now known as Capitol Riverfront, has been revitalized as a mixed-income community. A group of parents, most of them middle-income, has successfully prodded DCPS to reopen the school next fall.
While there are a number of low-income families within Van Ness’s boundaries, there’s no guarantee the student body will meet the 40% low-income threshold and qualify for the guaranteed-preschool program. At the same time, there are numerous other low-income elementary schools in DC that DCPS chose not to include in the pilot.
A DCPS spokesperson did not respond to a question about why Van Ness had been chosen for the program.
While students have been preparing for one thing, Bowser might send them in a new direction
Bowser is probably right that none of the changes to DC’s school boundaries will be undoable once she takes office. But another question is whether, after a long process during which many residents made their views heard, it will actually make sense to undo it. A poll taken in September found that 56% of DC residents supported the new boundaries. And according to DCPS, only about 27% of the 23,000 students who currently attend their zoned DCPS will end up in a different attendance zone next fall if the plan goes into effect.
In theory, the details DCPS released last week should help students and their families plan for the future. But if Muriel Bowser takes the school boundary issue back to the drawing board, those affected by the proposed changes will remain in limbo for a while longer.