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Stuck In The Middle: Will D.C. Get The New Middle Schools That Some Want?

Alice Deal Junior Middle School in Ward 3 is one of the city's best — and most sought-after.
Alice Deal Junior Middle School in Ward 3 is one of the city's best — and most sought-after.

In 2013, MacFarland Middle School in Petworth closed its doors. The last stand-alone public middle school in Ward 4, D.C. School Chancellor Kaya Henderson said MacFarland was under-enrolled, with only 25 percent of its building was being used.

But starting as soon as the 2015-16 school year, MacFarland could reopen. It may not be alone: Under a revised proposal from a committee exploring changes to the city's four-decade-old school boundaries and feeder patterns, Ron Brown Middle School in Ward 7, also closed in 2013, could open to students again, while brand new middle schools could come to a northern portion of Ward 4 and the fast-growing neighborhoods around Logan Circle.

All told, changes to D.C.'s middle schools are one of the committee's most dramatic recommendations. According to an analysis of the proposed changes, while only a small percentage of elementary school students would see a change in their boundary or feeder pattern, almost half of all of the city's middle school students would be assigned to a new school.

And though the new middle schools only exist on paper for now, that the committee has proposed them reflects a growing emphasis by city officials on the middle grades — the same grades that had seemingly been conceded to the city's growing charter school sector. By reinvesting in middle schools, city officials hope to stem the tide of students who attend DCPS elementary schools before decamping for alternatives in middle and high schools.

New Middle Schools?

When MacFarland closed, Ward 4 parents whose children were approaching middle schools were left with a number of education campuses, DCPS schools created in 2008 to serve preschool through eighth grade.

But according to Cathy Reilly, a Ward 4 parent, education activist and member of the D.C. Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, an increase in elementary school enrollment has put pressure on those campuses, and parents have complained that they don't offer the same range of options as stand-alone elementary or middle schools can.

"If you want to make room for those kids in the younger grades and have a sense of future for them, they won't fit in the middle grades at West and Truesdell and Raymond," she says, referring to three education campuses serving the middle and southern portions of Ward 4. "And the middle grades option hasn't worked out to be compatible with what a middle school can offer, in terms of the range of courses and the experience of being in secondary school."

Reopening MacFarland would take pressure off of the education campuses, she says. The same would apply to the four education campuses that serve the northern portion of Ward 4 — Takoma, Brightwood, La Salle-Backus, and Whittier — which could revert to offering only preschool and elementary grades, with middle grades shifting to a new stand-alone middle school.

According to data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, that lack of viable middle school options in Ward 4 — along with stiff competition from charter schools, which offer more sixth, seventh and eighth grade options than DCPS — has led many parents to look elsewhere in the city or opt out of DCPS altogether.

In the 2012-13 school year, only 21 percent of students zoned for Raymond Educational Campus in Petworth actually attended; the number was 20 percent for the Columbia Height Education Campus and 27 percent for Truesdell. On average, from 2010-11 to 2013-14, 39 percent of all DCPS students went from their elementary school to designated middle school — with the numbers being lower for education campuses.

That has put pressure on DCPS high schools in the ward, which have not been attracting local students. (In 2012-13, Coolidge was at 44 percent utilization, Roosevelt at 45 percent.) Under the committee's revised proposal, students attending MacFarland would feed to Roosevelt, while those in a new northern middle school would go to Coolidge.

"Overall, the folks in the community where we felt the pressure did feel that it wasn't comparable to what they could get if they got into Deal or Hardy, where they see those as superior options," says Reilly, who is also working with the Ward 4 Education Alliance, a new group that formed to advocate for new middle school options.

In Ward 5, a new Brookland Middle School is expected to open in 2015, and earlier this year D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced additional funding for academic programs and extended days.

On Paper, But A Reality?

Putting the new middle schools on paper is one thing, but actually planning and building them is another.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is running for mayor and has called for new middle schools, set aside $7 million in capital funds for the coming year to plan for a new Ward 4 middle school. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who is also running for mayor, put $8 million in the budget to plan for an application-only middle school in Ward 7, to be located at Ron Brown Middle School, which like MacFarland closed in 2013.

But the new Center City Middle School — which would serve fast-growing portions of ward 1 and 2 — remains little more than a proposal. While Henderson said last year that closed schools could eventually reopen if the demand is demonstrated, DCPS has not yet commented on the committee's proposals. Bowser and Catania have also refrained from comment on the new proposal, though both have hinted that the committee's work — which is set to produce final recommendation this fall that go into effect in 2015 — should be put on hold.

"We do need a middle school, but there's no specifics as to timeline, [or] if we're going to use one of the currently vacant buildings," says Stephanie Maltz, an ANC commissioner in Dupont Circle and member of the Ward 2 Education Network. She lives in one of the neighborhoods that would feed into the new Center City Middle School, and works with Ross Elementary School, which would send students there.

"Programatically, what's it going to look like? How are they going to work with the community to make sure it's a success? They just shut down Shaw a couple of years ago, so what are we going to do to make sure that it's a place that can be successful?" she says. "I need some more information on how it's going to work."

Critics of the committee's work have also said that while redrawing school boundaries and feeder patterns — as well as planning for and building new schools — may be necessary, the city should double down on increasing the quality of its current stock of schools. Members of the committee say that both can happen at the same time.

For Reilly, the proposals for new middle schools may only be an idea for now, but it's important that they're out there.

"These proposals are a vision and a plan, and if you don't put it out there, getting the money into the capital budget and planning for it will never happen," she says.


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