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Mayor Vincent Gray today adopted recommendations for changes to the city's school boundaries and feeder patterns, but the fate of the politically sensitive proposal remains uncertain as two leading mayoral contenders have said the changes should be put on hold.
Under the third and final proposal from the 22-member D.C. Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, the city's neighborhood-based school will remain in place, with students enjoying by-right access to neighborhood elementary schools and more predictable paths through middle and high school. It is the first change to the city's boundaries and feeder patterns in over 40 years.
The plan redraws boundaries to account for population changes, shrinks high school boundaries, calls for the opening of four new middle schools, and sets aside a specific percentage of seats at all schools for out-of-boundary and at-risk students. Parents living in a boundary of a Title I school will also gain by-right access to pre-K programs; they are now only available via lottery.
City officials say that feeder patterns will be established by "stacking" boundaries: various elementary boundaries will create a new boundary for a middle school, and the boundaries for that middle school will create a new boundary for high school. That, they say, will create more predictability in the system.
The proposal also address transportation for students — high school students will travel on Metro free of charge, for one — and establishes a mechanism for future changes to boundaries and feeder patterns. It also creates a mechanism for traditional public schools and charter schools to share best practices and information.
Currently, overlapping boundaries that do not take into account schools closed over the years have created confusing paths for many students; according to D.C. officials, 22 percent of students enjoy rights to multiple schools. That, say officials, has led to some schools being persistently over-enrolled, while others suffer a dearth of students. Additionally, students travel across the city for schools; only 25 percent of students attend their in-boundary school.
City officials say that many of the changes were prompted by parents asking for more predictability in where their children would go to school, and doubles down on a neighborhood-based system of schools. A proposal in the first draft for "choice sets" — groups of schools that parents would have access to via a lottery — was removed from a second draft after some parents complained that it chipped away at the foundation of by-right neighborhood schools.
The first changes will take place in the next school year, and many will be phased in over a number of years — a rising third-grader, for example, will retain their current feeder rights through the end of high school — to accommodate concerns from parents whose kids are currently at a school with feeder patterns that will change. Current students will also benefit from "extensive grandfathering provisions," said one official.
The majority of the changes will be felt at the middle school level: 40 percent of students will be reassigned to a new school, compared to 15 percent at the elementary school level and 26 percent in high school.
Still, it is unclear how much of the proposal will remain in place after January 2015, when a new mayor takes office. Both Muriel Bowser and David Catania have said they would like to slow down the adoption of the changes, and instead focus on improving quality at individual schools. But city officials say that many of the changes in the proposal cannot easily be undone.
"The changes are being coded into the system. Anything can be changed... the question is, how much disruption will that cause?" said one senior official, speaking on background. The citywide lottery, which opens in December, will take into account the changes adopted by Gray, meaning that if the next mayor wants to stop the changes from taking effect, they would have to restart the entire lottery early next year, said the official.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson similarly dismissed any plans to slow down implementation of the changes. "It took us 40 years to get to making the changes that are good and right for kids. I don’t know what we gain by delaying," she said. "What I find ironic is when people say, ‘We’re not moving fast enough on education reform in this city.’ But here’s a key way to help that, but we want to slow this down."
Still, the next D.C. mayor will have a say over the construction and opening of the new middle schools, some of which have money set aside for planning but not for construction. MacFarland Middle School, which was closed in 2013 and is currently being used for high school students as neighboring Roosevelt High School is renovated, could open as soon as the 2016-17 school year, though officials admit that that's an optimistic assessment.
In a letter to the committee that made the changes, Gray said that moving forward on the proposal was more important than waiting for a new mayor to act on them.
"Although there will never be a good time to make changes to our assignment policies and DCPS boundaries, the benefits of moving forward with your recommendations far outweigh the ongoing price of inaction. The path of education reform we embarked upon in 2007 can go only so far without taking this next critical step," he wrote.