Matthew S. Schwartz
The Jefferson Academy booth at EdFEST, D.C.'s public school fair in December, tries to
attract students to the middle school. Jefferson is eschewed
by many parents of students from Capitol Hill feeder school Brent
Each year, parents of 4th-graders at Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill have a decision to make: What to do about middle school?
The question essentially comes a year early. Middle school starts at 6th grade in D.C.'s traditional public school system, but for Brent parents like Amy Harding-Wright, 5th grade is the time to make a move.
A couple years ago, her daughter was a Brent 4th-grader. Harding-Wright's initial thought? “I really would love to be able to send my daughter to our neighborhood public middle school,” she says.
She didn't. The neighborhood school is Jefferson Academy, where only a third of students who enter are at grade level academically. Harding-Wright was used to Brent — a particularly high-performing elementary school that tests in the top 10 of all D.C.’s neighborhood elementaries.
Harding-Wright says she’s philosophically opposed to charter schools because “they take away from the resources that we should be getting in our neighborhood schools.” Even so, she ended up pulled her daughter out of Brent after 4th grade to attend Basis, a popular D.C. charter.
“It was a very difficult decision,” she says, “but I will always do what’s best for my child, even if it’s difficult.”
Such decisions are common at Brent. After the 2014-15 school year, 70 percent of 4th-graders didn't return for 5th grade. That’s actually an improvement from the year before, when more than 80 percent left.
Up until 5th grade, Brent’s grade-to-grade re-enrollment numbers look pretty strong, reflecting the surge in elementary school enrollment throughout D.C. Public Schools.
“When I first came here Brent had right around 330 students, 340, and in five years we’re going to now be at 400 or just above 400,” says Brent principal Peter Young. “This year marks the first time that we’ve had three 4th grade classes, so I had to go to DCPS to say, ‘Dear DCPS, we need a third 4th grade teacher,’ and that was granted.”
But 4th grade is where the surge stops; Brent’s 5th grade has only one class.
“It concerns me, and it’s always concerned me that we lose that many students,” Young says.
Although Brent's numbers are typically the most pronounced in the city, losses happen at schools throughout the traditional public school system. (See the chart below for the numbers from most DCPS elementary schools.) DCPS says it had a net loss 250 students after 4th grade last year. So where are they going?
Many, it turns out, head to charter middle schools, and many of those schools start in 5th grade — so parents pull their kids out of the DCPS elementary school early. This has consequences beyond the individual child.
Disconnected from diversity
Brent Elementary is diverse, reflecting the neighborhood. Two-thirds of students are white, and about one-third are African-American and Latino. But as many parents move their kids to other schools, Brent becomes less diverse in 5th grade. And at Jefferson Academy, the student body is almost entirely black.
“We have 1 percent white, thank you very much,” Principal Natalie Gordon says, followed by an impish laugh.
“Our world is not polar like that,” says Candace Mott. She has a daughter at Brent, and worries her daughter wouldn’t get a wide enough range of experiences at the neighborhood middle school.
“Our world is very much intertwined and mixed and everyone deserves and needs the opportunity to talk to everyone,” Mott says. “So when you don’t have those shared experiences, your schools become disconnected from really what the world is.”
On a recent weekday, Gordon was walking the hallways of Jefferson, making sure students were heading to class and had their shirts tucked in.
“It’s a school policy to have our shirt tucked in so we look professional in the school building,” one middle-schooler explains.
Gordon holds her students to a high standard. “We are destined to be the highest achieving middle school in D.C.,” she says. And she has big plans for Jefferson, beginning with enrichment classes the school currently offers, including college thesis writing, college lit, journalism, engineering, and video game design.
Parents at Brent Elementary love Gordon. They say she’s passionate and driven and really wants the best for students. But for many high-achieving Capitol Hill parents, that passion is just not enough.
“I’m a huge supporter of Jefferson,” says Kiersten Keating, who has a 3rd-grader at Brent. “I think their principal is phenomenal. I would like to send my daughter there. But the reality is, next year I’ve got to start doing the research, and I have to at least play the game and enter the lottery.”
D.C. has a single lottery for families who want to enroll their children at DCPS schools or public charters beyond their neighborhood public school. Ivan Frishberg, who sits on the Brent PTA, says that parents who don't do the lottery are closing down their options. “'If I forego that lottery spot at Basis, then I don’t know what I’m going to do,'” he says of a typical parent’s thought process. “It’s a fear thing that motivates.”
When ‘middle class people’ leave
But if more Brent parents were to give Jefferson a chance, it might do wonders for the community at large, says Richard Kahlenberg. He’s a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where he studies inequality in schools.
“I think it’s problematic when middle-class people pull out of traditional public schools,” Kahlenberg says.
The families who remain are often poor — and socioeconomic status is directly related to academic achievement, Kahlenberg says. At Jefferson, 63 percent of students were classified as "at-risk" in 2015.
Kahlenberg completely understands why so many parents leave: “These parents are not crazy to look at a school that's got overwhelming concentrations of poverty and be skeptical about it.”
But their decision to pull their kids out of the neighborhood hurts those who are left behind, he says: When wealthier families leave, the ones who remain often don’t know how to work the system to ensure their kids get the best possible education.
“You’d like to have peers who are encouraging academic achievement and can expect to go onto college,” he says. “You want to have parents in a community who are actively involved in school affairs and can keep an eye on how the school is doing and make changes when necessary — people who know what levers of power to pull. And in high-poverty schools you tend to get none of those things.”
DCPS is working hard to improve middle schools, says John Davis, chief of schools. Its “middle grades initiative” has provided more money to schools for classes like foreign language, gym, and art, as well as band and sports equipment.
“If you look over the last six or seven years of our academic performance, the biggest gains have been in 6th, 7th and 8th grade,” Davis says. “Our middle schools are what has carried the District. So, as much as people complain — and at times make unfortunate decisions to go to charter schools — in the end it’s our middle schools that have really been pushing the District in a positive way.”
But in the past few years, as elementary school enrollment has been rising across DCPS, middle school numbers have stayed flat, or even declined. Even parents sympathetic to the cause have trouble placing their faith in the DCPS middle schools.
“To say that, well you’re going to go to a public school because this is what we believe in?” says Mott, whose daughter goes to Brent. “Or you’re going to go to a neighborhood school because we’re going to support the neighborhood? It’s kind of hard to have your child be the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, to your personal philosophies.”
That’s the school system’s challenge: to convince parents who have lots of other options that the neighborhood school is the best one for their children’s future.
D.C. 4th-graders who return to the same school
The following chart shows the students who completed 4th grade at a D.C. public school during the 2014-15 school year, and the number of those students who returned to that school for 5th grade in the 2015-16 school year. Some students who do not return to the same school stay within the DCPS system, while many leave for public charter schools or private schools.
|School||Potential Returnees||Returned For 5th Grade||Percentage Change|
|Aiton ES||20||15||-25 percent|
|Amidon-Bowen ES||46||39||-15.2 percent|
|Bancroft ES||50||47||-6 percent|
|Barnard ES||71||61||-14.1 percent|
|Beers ES||42||34||-19 percent|
|Brent ES||47||14||-70.2 percent|
|Brightwood Education Campus||49||43||-12.2 percent|
|Bunker Hill ES||14||11||-21.4 percent|
|Browne EC||19||10||-47.4 percent|
|Bruce-Monroe ES @ Park View||59||52||-11.9 percent|
|Burroughs ES||29||23||-20.7 percent|
|Burrville ES||29||23||-20.7 percent|
|C.W. Harris ES||32||22||-31.3 percent|
|Cap Hill Montessori @ Logan||21||*||*|
|Cleveland ES||40||31||-22.5 percent|
|Drew ES||16||15||-6.3 percent|
|Eaton ES||78||71||-9 percent|
|School Without Walls @ Francis-Stevens||25||18||-28 percent|
|Garfield ES||42||31||-26.2 percent|
|Garrison ES||27||22||-18.5 percent|
|H.D. Cooke ES||43||36||-16.3 percent|
|Hearst ES||36||33||-8.3 percent|
|Hendley ES||67||51||-23.9 percent|
|Houston ES||20||14||-30 percent|
|Hyde-Addison ES||54||39||-27.8 percent|
|J.O. Wilson ES||63||51||-19 percent|
|Janney ES||98||89||-9.2 percent|
|Ketcham ES||21||16||-23.8 percent|
|Key ES||56||31||-44.6 percent|
|Kimball ES||49||41||-16.3 percent|
|King - M.L. ES||47||37||-21.3 percent|
|Lafayette ES||113||107||-5.3 percent|
|Langdon ES||27||23||-14.8 percent|
|Langley ES||25||22||-12 percent|
|LaSalle-Backus EC||30||21||-30 percent|
|Leckie ES||52||38||-26.9 percent|
|Ludlow-Taylor ES||26||22||-15.4 percent|
|Malcolm X ES @ Green||21||13||-38.1 percent|
|Mann ES||43||37||-14 percent|
|Marie Reed ES||52||43||-17.3 percent|
|Maury ES||53||33||-37.7 percent|
|Miner ES||46||39||-15.2 percent|
|Moten ES||48||43||-10.4 percent|
|Murch ES||95||89||-6.3 percent|
|Nalle ES||44||38||-13.6 percent|
|Noyes ES||31||25||-19.4 percent|
|Orr ES||45||38||-15.6 percent|
|Oyster-Adams Bilingual||73||65||-11 percent|
|Patterson ES||38||29||-23.7 percent|
|Payne ES||37||34||-8.1 percent|
|Plummer ES||56||40||-28.6 percent|
|Powell ES||53||39||-26.4 percent|
|Randle Highlands ES||47||32||-31.9 percent|
|Raymond EC||32||24||-25 percent|
|Savoy ES||46||34||-26.1 percent|
|Seaton ES||30||29||-3.3 percent|
|Shepherd ES||49||43||-12.2 percent|
|Simon ES||50||40||-20 percent|
|Smothers ES||39||30||-23.1 percent|
|Stanton ES||76||65||-14.5 percent|
|Stoddert ES||60||34||-43.3 percent|
|Takoma EC||39||36||-7.7 percent|
|Thomas ES||56||46||-17.9 percent|
|Thomson ES||32||18||-43.8 percent|
|Truesdell EC||31||25||-19.4 percent|
|Tubman ES||64||53||-17.2 percent|
|Turner ES||45||39||-13.3 percent|
|Tyler ES||51||36||-29.4 percent|
|Walker-Jones EC||36||26||-27.8 percent|
|Watkins ES||121||87||-28.1 percent|
|West EC||14||13||-7.1 percent|
|Wheatley EC||42||24||-42.9 percent|
|Whittier EC||43||29||-32.6 percent|
* Fewer than 10 students returned. DCPS withholds the exact number for such schools. The estimated percentage change at these schools is more than 50 percent.