Photo of Garrison Elementary from DCPS website.

Generally, housing prices in DC correlate with neighborhood school test scores. But Garrison Elementary in Logan Circle is a striking exception: it’s a school with math and reading proficiency rates in the mid-20s in an area where the median sale price for a three-bedroom home last year was over a million dollars.

Garrison’s principal, Collin Hill, says that he, like others, was a little surprised that prices within the school’s boundaries were so high. But he also says his school’s test scores don’t tell the whole story, and that Garrison is on an upward trajectory.

In 2012, DC Public Schools announced it was planning to close Garrison, located at 1200 S Street NW, because of low enrollment. Built for 350 students, the school had only 228.

But parents at the school mounted a massive effort to convince DCPS to reverse its decision, promising to boost enrollment to 344 by 2016. As a result, DCPS not only agreed to keep the school open but also pledged to modernize the dilapidated building.

That pledge has yet to be fulfilled, as DC officials have repeatedly postponed the funding for Garrison’s renovation. And while enrollment has increased, last year it was still only 244. For next year, DCPS has projected a figure of 260.

Test scores at the school have actually declined over the past several years. Proficiency rates in 2011-12 were 51% for math and 45% for reading. They dipped to 33% and 31%, respectively, in 2012-13. For 2013-14, they were 23% and 25%.

The connection between gentrification and test scores can be complex

Generally, of course, schools in affluent neighborhoods have high test scores. In areas where housing prices have long been high, that has a lot to do with the fact that schools enroll affluent kids, who tend to score better than low-income kids on standardized tests.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, the reasons for the correlation between scores and housing prices can be more complex. Scores may rise as affluent families begin sending their kids to a low-performing neighborhood school, and those rising scores in turn attract more affluent families. Ideally, scores of low-income kids at the school also increase as the school improves.

Logan Circle, the neighborhood where Garrison is located, is a gentrification poster child. Longtime Washingtonians may remember it as a rough area they did their best to avoid 20 or 30 years ago. In the past few years, it’s become a bustling downtown mecca where it can be impossible to snag a table at a restaurant—or a condo, if you don’t have $900,000.

Of course, many of the people paying high prices for homes around Logan Circle aren’t sending their kids to Garrison. They may not have school-age kids, or they may be in a position to afford a private school. Some may figure they’ll luck out in the lottery for charter schools or DCPS schools in other neighborhoods.

Still, according to the DCPS website, 48% of Garrison’s students live within the school’s boundaries. For a DCPS school, that’s a respectable figure. While some schools draw over 80% of their students from within their boundaries, even many with high test scores draw far fewer. John Eaton—a high-performing school in affluent Cleveland Park—has only 45% in-boundary students.

Multiple factors may explain low scores at Garrison

But the wealthier neighborhood families who send their kids to Garrison aren’t generally sticking around long enough for their kids to have a positive effect on the school’s test scores. As at many other schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, affluent residents have tended to send their kids there for preschool and kindergarten and then peel off for other schools. DCPS testing doesn’t begin until 3rd grade, by which time classes are predominantly filled with lower-income kids.

The uncertainty about Garrison’s future two years ago may have exacerbated that trend among families who could muster the resources to find another school.

Principal Hill also says that at a small school like his, a small number of weak students in a given year can pull average scores down significantly.

And scores may well improve in the future. Hill says he’s been laying the groundwork for that kind of improvement, but it takes time to see results.

Hill took over the school in 2012, shortly before DCPS announced plans to close it, with a mandate to increase in-boundary enrollment. He set in motion a number of changes. For one thing, he says, the school’s previous administration focused its efforts on the grades that were tested instead of building a strong foundation in basic skills in lower grades.

Hill has changed that approach, and he says it’s paying off. All but two of last year’s kindergarteners ended the year with reading skills at grade level, he says. And on measures of reading comprehension for students below 3rd grade, Garrison scored among the top ten schools in the district. That was true for both the lowest-performing kids and those who were just below where they should have been.

There’s also been almost a complete turnover in teaching staff since Hill took over. While some of that was “natural turnover,” Hill says, some of it has reflected improvements he wanted to make. And he’s introduced a new math curriculum, a writing initiative that has seen good results at other DCPS schools, and a calmer school culture.

Test scores aren’t everything

More fundamentally, Hill says test scores aren’t the full measure of a school. If neighborhood residents come visit Garrison, he says, they’ll find a “community where people feel welcomed and valued.” He cites his own experience as a parent some years ago at Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill.

"When our kids went to Maury,” he says, “the test scores were not phenomenal. But when my wife walked in, she said it felt like a friendly, supportive place.”

Clearly, that’s what a number of neighborhood parents have experienced at Garrison and one reason they fought so hard to keep it open. One parent who had a negative reaction to Garrison’s former principal had the opposite reaction to Hill.

"He’s smart, engaged, well-spoken, and aware of the challenges he faces,” she wrote in a post for Greater Greater Education two years ago.

Garrison may well get a respite from a focus on test scores for a while. Because DC gave students new, more rigorous tests this past school year, scores coming out this fall won’t be comparable to those from past years. As a result, they may be de-emphasized—or perhaps even not made public.

That could help draw even more neighborhood families to Garrison, and possibly encourage them to stay longer. But Garrison, like most DCPS elementary schools, suffers from a feeder pattern problem: no matter how good the elementary school gets, families may not want to stick around and risk being funneled to a middle school and high school they lack confidence in.

Currently, the destination school for Garrison students is Cardozo Education Campus, which houses 6th through 12th grades. Formerly a low-performing high school with a rough reputation, Cardozo reopened two years ago after one of DCPS’s typically stunning renovations. The new building also absorbed what had previously been a stand-alone middle school, Shaw at Garnet-Patterson.

It’s not clear how many Garrison parents will be willing to send their 6th-graders on to Cardozo. The new school boundary plan that DC has adopted calls for reviving a separate Shaw middle school that would serve as the destination for Garrison students. There’s no word, though, on when or if that school will actually be built.

But more and more residents of Logan Circle, like residents of Capitol Hill and other gentrifying areas, may well decide that a convenient, welcoming neighborhood elementary school that is on the upswing is worth something, even without the promise of a high-quality feeder pattern. Maybe even a million bucks.

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.