When the MySchool DC common application and common lottery opened in December, legions of District families once again embarked on a journey to enroll their child in the public school or public charter school (PCS) of their choosing.
In Northeast, Denise Woodfolk navigated the process with her two grandchildren, both of whom have attended public charter schools throughout their academic career. When it came time to submit their applications, Woodfolk continued along the public charter school route, especially when it came to her granddaughter, who will soon enter high school.
Woodfolk, a DC Public Schools (DCPS) alumna and mother of two DCPS alumni, said she came to this decision after administrators at Coolidge High School, her granddaughter’s by-right, neighborhood school in Northwest, didn’t respond to her inquiries, over the phone and in-person, about the in-school academies that piqued her granddaughter’s interest.
Soon after abandoning Coolidge as an option, Woodfolk came upon Washington Leadership Academy PCS in Northeast.
While Washington Leadership Academy had what Woodfolk desired in a school, including college prep academies, advanced STEM courses, and small class sizes, the grandmother expressed her appreciation for how administrators engaged her and other parents and guardians at Capital Village Public Charter School, where her granddaughter is currently enrolled.
Woodfolk said that District public schools, by virtue of being the end-all, be-all for some parents, rarely make the same efforts to engage them. “I see a lot of parents traveling across the city a lot [to get their children to charter schools.] People whose children have [special-education] issues leave the city completely,” Woodfolk said.
“A lot of people tend to go to the public charters because not only do they get their allotted funding from the city, but they’re able to solicit additional income from different organizations,” she added. “DCPS gets a bad rap, but I don’t think they have the ability to go above and beyond. People go elsewhere, because it’s better for their kids.”
Southeast Public Schools Continue to Battle Stigma
According to preliminary, unaudited figures collected by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education last November, public schools and public charter schools have nearly an equal share of 96,000 District students.
Out of 249 District schools, fewer than half are public schools — many of which are by-right, neighborhood schools with guaranteed seating for students in the surrounding community.
In January, the D.C. Policy Center released a report showing that most District students — nearly three out of four — opt to leave their neighborhood to attend either an out-of-boundary District public school, a citywide DCPS school or a charter school.
This especially happens during the middle and high school years. Parents in communities located in the eastern portions of the District, frustrated with the lack of specialized programs of their child’s by-right, neighborhood school, often seek public charter schools or application-based public schools in other parts of the District.
That trend has affected the racial and socioeconomic composition of many District public schools.
Out of the nine feeder patterns, Jackson-Reed High School (formerly Wilson High School) has the highest level of in-boundary participation– that’s three times greater than the city’s average. That means students hailing from the mostly-white neighborhoods surrounding Hardy Middle School, Oyster-Adams Bilingual School and Deal Middle School in Northwest will most likely commit to attending Jackson-Reed, their by-right, neighborhood high school.
Among all the feeder patterns, the one leading to Eastern High School most closely represents the District’s racial demographics. Other than Jackson-Reed, feeder patterns with high in-boundary participation are overwhelmingly represented by white students and underrepresented by Black students.
Meanwhile, 80 percent of young people living in neighborhoods with feeder patterns leading to Anacostia High School, Ballou High School, Dunbar High School and Woodson High School choose to attend other high schools.
For one Southeast DCPS teacher, such trends reflect an ongoing battle to command the respect of DCPS central office personnel while competing with well-resourced public charter schools.
While the teacher, who requested anonymity, didn’t question the sincerity of DCPS central office’s efforts, the instructor noted that policy decisions often show a lack of knowledge about how to best serve students east of the Anacostia River. The teacher said this has especially become the case during budget season, when the loss of several thousands of dollars threatens to impede administrators’ efforts to build upon recent successes and attract more students.
Another qualm is centered on recent changes in leadership at Stanton Elementary School and Sousa Middle School, both located in Southeast. In November, Courtney Wilkerson left Sousa to take the helm as principal at Roosevelt High School in Northwest. A month later, DCPS announced that Harold McCray left his position at Stanton to become founding principal at MacArthur High School, DCPS’ newest high school that’s scheduled to open in Ward 3 this fall.
For the Southeast DCPS teacher, Wilkerson and McCray’s departure bears a striking similarity to the exodus that many students make out of Wards 7 and 8 to attend schools west of the Anacostia River and west of Rock Creek Park.
“A lot of our students will go uptown for high school, but you never get students from Northeast and uptown to go to school,” the teacher said. “So many of our kids go to charter schools and other wards for school. They have more offerings up there. For a lot of our families, it’s about exposure.”
Rectifying D.C.’s History of Segregation
On Feb. 2, D.C. Councilmember Matt Frumin (D-Ward 3) expressed a commitment to making his ward more welcoming and inclusive when he took to Twitter to reflect on Ward 3’s “legacy of exclusion,” as seen in the deed to his house, which includes a racial covenant preventing non-white people from purchasing it.
These racially restrictive covenants, in tandem with discriminatory lending by white-owned banks, concentration of public housing in the eastern part of the District, and the disinvestment of majority-Black communities, count as part of a legacy of racial segregation.
School assignments based on neighborhood boundaries have further cemented racial and economic inequity by keeping many young Black people facing economic strife in underresourced schools.
The local school-choice movement of the late 1990s and 2000s, and subsequent changes to school boundaries, attempted to provide families more latitude in their educational choices. When boundary changes went into effect in 2015, city leaders hoped that the new school boundaries would ease school overcrowding and undercrowding while addressing the challenges students faced traveling to their school of choice.
Years later, concerns about building utilization persist, especially as it relates to District public school buildings.
A recent report from the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education found that 19 District public schools — including Aiton Elementary School, Lasalle-Backus Middle School, Moten Elementary School, H.D Woodson High School, Anacostia High School, Johnson Middle School and Kramer Middle School — had a utilization rate of 50 percent during the 2021-2022 school year.
Banneker Academic High School, a citywide, application-based public high school that moved from Euclid Street in Northwest to a new building in the Shaw community, also made the list, with a building utilization rate of less than 50 percent. That rate stemmed from the school not being able to fill the 800 seats since changing location.
Meanwhile, Jackson-Reed High School has experienced overcrowding in recent years. In response, DCPS’ newest high school, MacArthur High School, will open in August on the campus of the former lower and middle school campus of Georgetown Day School with slots for 9th and 10th graders.
The Great Debate About MacArthur High School
Over the last few months, founding principal Harold McCray has made the rounds to promote MacArthur High School and gather feedback about the desired academic and extracurricular programming. This happened most recently at the DC Equitable Access School Fair and an open house at Palisades Neighborhood Library in Northwest.
Starting this citywide school enrollment cycle, Hardy Middle School will become part of the MacArthur High School feeder pattern. Meanwhile, students from Deal Middle School and ninth graders from Jackson-Reed can apply for slots.
Out-of-boundary students and students designated as at-risk also qualify for admission into MacArthur High School. Though it remains to be seen how many students fitting that profile will attend DCPS’ newest high school, community members have already raised concerns about out-of-boundary students traveling to a part of the city where the nearest Metro station — Tenleytown Metro Station — is two miles away.
Another area of concern, as expressed by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), is the further siphoning of young people from parts of the District where school buildings are increasingly becoming empty.
“[DCPS officials] have to explain how they’re not taking from other high schools that are under-enrolled,” Mendelson said. “That’s been one of the problems with our schools. [The city] keeps opening schools when we’re struggling with under-enrollment and we don’t have a plan.”
That’s why Chelsea Coffin, director of The Education Policy Initiative at D.C. Policy Center, said that, as District officials revisit school boundaries, there must be emphasis on making by-right, in-boundary District public schools, particularly those in the eastern parts of the city, more attractive to families living in the surrounding communities.
“There’s an important conversation to be had around each elementary, middle and high school being a strong by-right option,” Coffin said. “The boundary process is about shifting the distribution of students.”
“Certain policies give preferences to certain students [for out-of-boundary schools],” she added.
“That could make a difference in access to some schools aside from a student’s by-right school.”