Photo of Wilson High School from DCPS website.

DC Public Schools plans to cut Wilson High School’s budget next year by 10%, even though the student body is expected to grow by 10%. Parent groups and the school’s principal are protesting, arguing that the cuts will hurt the most vulnerable students at the relatively affluent school.

Next year’s proposed budget will effectively reduce the school’s allocation by $1.8 million, according to Interim Principal Gregory Bargeman. He and parents at Wilson warn that the cut will mean larger class sizes, decreased security, and less support for struggling students, many of whom travel to the Ward 3 school from other parts of the District.

Bargeman recently told parents and students that DCPS plans to reduce Wilson’s per-student allocation from $9,276 this year to $8,306 next year, an amount he said was the lowest allocated to any neighborhood school in the District. According to Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, other high schools are receiving an average of close to $14,000 per student.

At the same time, the Wilson student body is growing even faster than expected. This year’s budget was based on a projected enrollment of 1708, but the actual enrollment is almost 1800. That resulted in a shortfall of almost $790,000 this year.

DCPS projects that next year’s enrollment will be 1878, but parents say recent trends indicate it will be at least 85 more than that. Even assuming DCPS’s figure is correct, Bargeman says the school system is asking Wilson to serve 170 more students than last year with less money—$309,600 less, to be exact.

Wilson’s Parent Teacher Student Organization and Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) have sent a letter to Mayor Bowser and other DC officials asking that Wilson get an additional $900,000 for next year. They plan to hold a meeting at the school tonight, and are asking residents, especially those who live outside Ward 3, to contact their DC Councilmembers.

Cheh has already sent DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson a letter protesting the budget cut. “To parents across the District who send their children to Wilson,” she wrote, “Wilson is a model and restores confidence in DCPS. With this budget, however, you will dramatically shake that confidence.”

Wilson draws students from every one of DC’s 22 zip codes, according to school parents. And 44% of its students come from beyond its boundaries.

In Wilson’s weekly bulletin last week, Principal Bargeman said he had spent much of the previous week “trying to persuade DCPS to reconsider the proposed cut. To date, DCPS has been unwilling to make changes.”

Funding and at-risk students

Henderson told the Washington Post that the school system is reducing Wilson’s funding because it has to target funds to schools with large concentrations of at-risk students. DC law requires that each school get an additional $2,000 for each student who is homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

But as Cheh points out, Wilson does have a substantial number of at-risk students. According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, at-risk students make up 31% of its student body. True, many other DCPS schools have at-risk concentrations of 70% or more. But because Wilson has such a large student body, that 31% translates into 550 students, which is greater than the number of at-risk students at several other high schools—and greater than the entire enrollment at two of those schools.

Beyond that, DCPS isn’t just decreasing Wilson’s additional funding for at-risk students. It’s decreasing the minimum amount the school is supposed to get to provide basic services to all its students, in order to provide additional funds to other schools.

Last year, DCPS didn’t allocate the at-risk funds proportionally as the law required. Because of time constraints, it used the money to help fund initiatives it had already planned.

A guide to the school budget posted on the DCPS website explains that in allocating at-risk funds for next year, officials decided they couldn’t “in good conscience” take money away from worthy initiatives that are getting the funds this year. So, among other cost-saving measures, they “examined the budgets of schools with smaller numbers of at-risk students” and reduced per-pupil funding for next year on the theory that it was “the least harmful way of freeing up funds.”

All students at Wilson will suffer from the planned cuts, but at-risk and low-income students there will suffer the most, says Jeffrey Kovar, a Wilson parent and chair of its LSAT.

For example, Wilson will no longer have a full-time college counselor. Middle-class students whose parents went to college themselves will still be able to navigate the college application process, but low-income first-generation college applicants will be at a serious disadvantage.

Kovar, one of the authors of the letter calling on residents to protest the cuts, also says Wilson will lack money to support minority students taking challenging AP classes and struggling to pass 9th grade.

Class sizes will climb to 30 for regular classes, he predicts, and AP classes, already averaging 30 students, could go as high as 40. A lack of staff to monitor behavior in a building designed for only 1550 students could also pose a threat to safety.

The year of the high school and Wilson’s achievement gap

Kovar finds it particularly ironic that Henderson is planning to cut Wilson’s funding in what she has declared “the year of the high school.” Just as last year DCPS focused on improving middle schools, next year it will concentrate on improving high school quality, especially for low-income and struggling students.

Wilson has long had an achievement gap between its wealthier and lower-income students, and the apparent reason the school’s principal was fired earlier this school year was his failure to make enough progress closing it. Now, says Kovar, the school will have an even harder time doing so.

DCPS presumably feels that affluent families within Wilson’s boundaries will continue to flock to the school despite the cuts. And perhaps it hopes that allocating more money to schools in poorer neighborhoods will lure students into remaining there rather than traveling across town. Certainly it would make sense to try to fill the gleaming but half-empty high schools that DC has spent many millions building or renovating in recent years.

But it will take a while before those other schools achieve Wilson’s drawing power, whether that power is justified or not. No doubt poorer DCPS schools desperately need funds, and there seems to be an assumption that Wilson will be okay no matter what. But that may not be true. Wilson is the one neighborhood high school in DC that holds the promise of being both diverse and high-performing. It would be a shame if DCPS made that promise impossible to fulfill.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.