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Bowser Wants Tweaks To School Boundary Changes, But Doesn't Offer Specifics

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson spoke to Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser during a tour of Kelly Miller Middle School on Thursday. They were joined by Principal Abdullah Zaki, at right.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson spoke to Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser during a tour of Kelly Miller Middle School on Thursday. They were joined by Principal Abdullah Zaki, at right.

With just over a month until D.C.'s annual school lottery opens to parents, Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser says that she wants to tweak the plan that's changing the city's school boundaries and feeder patterns — but has yet to offer specifics on what tweaks she would make and how they might affect public school students.

"We’re going to tweak the plan, and we’ll tweak the plan at the beginning of the year. We’ll put the right team in place to focus on how we look at the boundaries. And so anything that happens in December, if it doesn’t work with the new plan, we’ll have to work to undo it," she said on Thursday afternoon after touring Kelly Miller Middle School with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

In August, Mayor Vincent Gray adopted changes to the city's 40-year-old boundaries and feeder patterns. The changes — which would also set aside a specific percentage of seats at all schools for out-of-boundary and at-risk students — were proposed by a 22-member committee that had debated the issue for over a year.

The committee argued that while the changes would be politically painful, they are necessary to help equalize enrollment at the city's 99 public schools and create predictable paths for students from elementary to high school.

But during the campaign, Bowser and fellow mayoral candidate David Catania objected to the changes, saying they would only exacerbate educational inequality in the city. Bowser and Catania both said the school boundary changes should be delayed and amended.

Still, since winning the Nov. 4 election Bowser has remained vague about what she will do once she takes office on Jan. 2.

Henderson has backed the changes put forth by the committee, and in October DCPS published an implementation plan that was sent to all parents. The first changes — the new school boundaries and feeder patterns — are being incorporated into the citywide lottery that opens to parents on Dec. 15.

One Gray official speaking on background said that while only a small percentage of students will be affected by the new boundaries and feeder patterns — and those who are affected will benefit from grandfathering policies — further altering them in the middle of the lottery process could sow confusion among parents across the city.

"By the end of the year, and by January, typically there are already a couple thousand applications submitted with the lottery. If there were any changes to that, that would be concerning," they said. The lottery remains open until March 2.

Where Bowser may have more flexibility, they said, is with a number of policy changes set to be phased-in over the next five years. The proposal adopted by Gray has 42 recommendations, some of which will be implemented more slowly.

Those include set-aside seats for out-of-boundary and at-risk students, the construction of new stand-alone middle schools, by-right access to pre-K programs at Title 1 schools, and developing specialized programs at all of the city's high schools.

"Many of those [recommendations]... will really go into effect over the next few years. That's where there's more room to tinker and tweak," said the Gray official.

Faith Gibson Hubbard, a Ward 5 resident and member of the committee that drew up the school boundary proposal, said that if Bowser wants to make changes, she should work with affected communities to seek their input.

"It's her right as a mayor to make some tweaks as she sees fit, but I do hope that whatever process she chooses to make those, she'd be willing to back and vet those within the community," she said.

Speaking on Thursday, Bowser remained coy about the tweaks she said she wants to make, but admitted that the uncertainty could impact parents' decisions.

"I know parents feel unsteady, but I think they know where I stand. We’re going to have a transition in power on Jan. 2, and that’s when our administration will begin," she said.


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