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For those who believe a system of school choice is the answer to our education woes, DC is a model for the rest of the nation. But the decline of the neighborhood school can make it harder to address the needs of poor children in a comprehensive way.

DC is a bastion of school choice, with only about a quarter of students attending their assigned neighborhood school. Overall, 44% of DC students are in charters, which draw from across the District, and many go to traditional public schools that are selective or located in neighborhoods other than their own.

Proponents of school choice argue that this kind of competition among schools leads to an improvement in school quality overall. But in some gentrifying DC neighborhoods, middle-class parents working to improve their neighborhood schools have long criticized a system that makes it relatively easy for parents to send their kids elsewhere.

"DC has created so many escape hatches—you don’t have to invest,” one mother told the Washington Post as she was about to switch her four-year-old from her neighborhood elementary school in Logan Circle to a sought-after bilingual charter. “Maybe they’ve got to close those hatches.”

DC’s Promise Neighborhood Initiative adopts a holistic approach

School choice can also make it difficult to improve children’s chances of success in low-income neighborhoods, as illustrated by the experience of DC’s Promise Neighborhood Initiative. Part of a nationwide program, the DCPNI has been receiving $25 million in federal grants to saturate an entire troubled area with social services and investments.

The initiative focuses on the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood in Northeast DC, where about half the residents live below the federal poverty line and nearly 90% of families with children are headed by a single female.

The area includes a charter middle and high school operated by the Cesar Chavez network and one DCPS elementary school, Neval Thomas. A highly regarded preschool program, Educare, has also located in the neighborhood. (There was a second elementary school in the area when the initiative began, but DCPS closed it shortly thereafter due to low enrollment.)

The idea behind Promise Neighborhoods is that just trying to improve the schools in a high-poverty area isn’t enough, because the problems of poverty spill over into the classroom. DCPNI works with neighborhood families on a range of issues, teaching things like parenting skills and healthy eating practices and trying to build community engagement.

But the center of the model—inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York—is the school, and the premise is that neighborhood children will attend schools in a given area from preschool through 12th grade.

That’s not the case in Kenilworth-Parkside, where fewer than a third of the 1,600 students attend local schools. The rest are enrolled in a staggering 184 different schools around the District.

Schools in the neighborhood have gotten better. Neval Thomas now has an updated library and other amenities, and while test scores remain low, attendance has improved. And the Cesar Chavez campus earned high marks from the Public Charter School Board for the first time last year, with administrators crediting the tutors, new curriculum, and teacher training funded by federal Promise Neighborhood money.

But fewer than 100 of Cesar Chavez’s 356 students came from Kenilworth-Parkside last year. And many neighborhood children aren’t benefiting from the improvements at Neval Thomas because they attend school elsewhere.

DCPNI provides afterschool programs that are open to those kids, but it can be hard for them to get there on time if they’re coming from schools in Northwest DC or if their schools have extended day programs.

The specifics of school choice may differ in gentrifying neighborhoods and low-income ones like Kenilworth-Parkside. But the end result in both cases is that many of the more motivated and engaged parents jump ship, ultimately leaving the neighborhood schools with a higher concentration of the most challenging students.

A neighborhood-based approach can make it easier to attack poverty-related ills

The children in Kenilworth-Parkside who go to school elsewhere may be getting a better education than those who remain, but they’re not immune from the effects of poverty-related trauma. The schools they attend, whether charter or DCPS, usually aren’t equipped to deal with the mental health issues they may bring with them, or to help their families acquire better parenting skills.

Some schools are trying to address these issues, but a community-based approach like DCPNI’s would make it easier, especially when a school’s families are far-flung. And a community-based approach stands a better chance of lifting the whole neighborhood, which may be the only way to lure some parents back to the neighborhood school.

"I don’t want my kids going to school with neighborhood kids,” one mother in Kenilworth-Parkside who sends some of her children to a charter told the Post. “People here have a lot of problems.”

It’s too late to dismantle the extensive system of school choice in DC, which has been expanded by the rise of charter schools but certainly existed before they came on the scene.

Lower-income families living east of the Anacostia River have long sent their children across town to more desirable DCPS schools. And higher-income families have always been able to exercise choice by moving to a neighborhood with better schools, either within the District or beyond its borders.

Restricting school choice at this point would be unfair to low-income parents who can’t afford to move to a better school zone or district, and it could push middle-class families out to the suburbs.

But if we want to see improvements in all neighborhood schools—and if we want to know whether an all-enveloping approach like DCPNI’s can work—we may need to modify our system of choice. One possibility that has long been discussed would be to allow charters to extend a preference in admissions to neighborhood residents.

As many in the charter community have argued, a neighborhood preference wouldn’t be appropriate for all charter schools, and it shouldn’t be forced on them across the board. But if a charter in a low-income area wants to set aside some of its seats for nearby kids who want to attend, giving the school that option could provide some of the benefits of choice without undermining the institution of the neighborhood school.

And neighborhood preference could make it easier to address the poverty-related ills that prevent poor children from succeeding in school and in life, while also benefiting a whole community. Education reformers like to defend school choice on the ground that a child’s chances of getting a good education shouldn’t depend on her zip code. But in the era of No Child Left Behind, school choice has left many zip codes as far behind as they’ve ever been.

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.