By: Victoria Jones
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray authorized new school boundaries on August 21st that will change the school assignments for tens of thousands of students. The changes are scheduled to go into effect for the 2015-2016 school year.
The new changes come after a long 10-month process where Gray finally accepted the advisory committee’s final recommendations. The plan is the first widespread overhaul of the District’s school boundaries in over 40 years. Its purpose is to create a more coherent school system that will encourage residents to invest in neighborhood schools; however, the plan has some residents worried.
Residents are concerned that the new boundary lines will affect their children’s academic opportunities and their real estate values since school quality varies dramatically and often along racial and socio-economic lines.
The announcement was made days before the beginning of the school year on August 26th, which was timed to comply with the law that families should have at least a year’s notice before any boundary changes go into effect.
Mayoral candidates Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David Catania (I-At-Large) have both spoken out and asked that the process slow down to give the next mayor more influence in the decision.
Bowser said, “The mayor’s plan on school boundary changes is not ready. His plan serves to exacerbate educational inequality and does little to move school reform forward faster. I cannot accept these recommendations.”
David Catania also said, “I intend to take action to delay implementation of the recommendations until at least school year 2016-2017. Again, while I agree with the direction of many of the recommendations, others I cannot support at this time.”
Mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz had also called for a delay, but on August 21st she approved some aspects of the plan, such as distributing at-risk students more equitably throughout the school system.
Mayor Gray has said that he has acted now on the plan to relieve the next mayor of having to make a risky political decision.
“An enormous amount of thought has gone into this effort,” Gray said in an interview on August 21.
The new plan now has one elementary, middle, and high school assigned to each D.C. home, a major change from the current system that allows more than a fifth of all public high school students to have rights to attend multiple schools due to school closings and consolidations.
District officials say that the new map of neighborhood schools reflect a strong desire for predictability. While only about 25 percent of city students now attend their assigned school, earlier proposals that suggested replacing neighborhood schools with schools that have regional or citywide lotteries were widely unpopular.
Around 28,500 of the 83,000 students in D.C.’s traditional and charter public schools live in areas that have been rezoned. The families of those students are expected to receive letters soon informing them of the new plans. However, most D.C. families will not be affected in the short term since city officials have set up the plan so that it will cause the least amount of disruptions possible.
The changes will also immediately affect families that are enrolling in D.C. public schools for the first time when the annual lottery opens in December. Students that are already enrolled in a school will be able to stay, and students who are in the third grade or higher will have the option of attending the middle and high schools they already planned on attending. Students that are below the third grade will be rezoned into their new middle and high schools unless they already have a sibling attending their former school when they will be in attendance.
Many parents feel as though D.C. should slow own and focus on improving the quality of all schools before addressing boundaries. Some also think that any long-term changes to school assignment policies should be coordinated with charter schools that now serve about 44 percent of D.C. public school students.
According to the Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who led the advisory committee that developed the boundary recommendations, the changes can wait no longer due to the overcrowding at some schools and school assignment policies that no longer makes sense.
The biggest changes are at the middle school level. Under the new plan, three new neighborhood middle schools will be opened in the central part of the city. Also, one new selective middle school east of the river will be open to students citywide.
Another big change, which is already very popular among parents, is a certain provision in the plan. This provision will give children zoned into Title I or high-poverty elementary schools the right to attend preschool there, when currently preschool seats are determined through a lottery. This new provision is in part of an effort to encourage families to start and stay with their neighborhood schools.
Another, more controversial plan aims to distribute students who considered at-risk for dropping out or other academic problems more evenly. The plan sets aside at least 10 percent of seats in every elementary school, 15 percent of seats in middle schools, and 20 percent of seats in high schools for out-of-boundary students. The plan also states that at-risk students should have a preference in the lottery for 25 percent of all out-of-boundary seats in any given year in more-affluent schools.
An earlier proposal did not put a limit on the number of seats that would go to at-risk students, and many middle-class parents have expressed concern that they would lose opportunities to attend higher-performing schools outside their neighborhoods.
The committee also recommended that the District’s selective schools and public charter schools give priority to at-risk students. Applying this kind of policy to charter schools would require a change in law, and the idea has already been met with opposition from the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which resigned its seat on the advisory committee in protest.