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DC's boundary and student assignment study gets started
Are school boundaries changing? What's a student assignment policy?
DC education leaders are beginning a year-long study of school boundaries and student assignment policies. I’m one of the members of the advisory committee they’ve created, with people from DCPS and charter schools, neighborhood activists and citywide organization leaders. What’s this study going to do?
For one, it will look at the boundaries for DC’s neighborhood elementary, middle, and high schools. About ten years ago, there was a major boundary re-drawing which accounted for decades of changes in where people lived and also accounted for many schools having been closed over the years. This study won’t be making nearly such large changes. However, there may need to be a few adjustments.
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The study will also look at feeder patterns - which elementary schools feed into which middle schools, and middle to high schools, and education campuses, where there are elementary and middle grades, or middle and high school, in one building. Since ten years ago, there have been various changes; for instance, Ida B. Wells middle school (between Brightwood, Takoma, and Manor Park) has opened, and MacFarland middle school (in Petworth) has expanded; many former K-8 campuses in northern DC have transitioned to being just elementary schools.
DCPS plans to also open a middle school at Euclid Street and Georgia Avenue, in the home of the former Banneker High School, which will serve various elementary schools in central DC who now go to Cardozo for middle school as part of a 6-12 education campus, and maybe others (possibly those in green in the center of the above map, which were the group recommended by the 2014 study).
Finally, the study will look at student assignment policies, or the policies around who can apply to which schools and what preferences there are. Student assignment potentially includes charter schools, citywide DCPS schools, or selective DCPS high schools. Should there be different policies for how the lotteries and eligibility work?
One policy that has arisen since the last study is equitable access. (Partly as a recommendation from that study!) Some neighborhood DCPS elementary schools now reserve some of their pre-K seats for students considered at risk, which includes low-income students who get public benefits, those in foster care or homeless, and high schoolers who are older than their grade level. Some charter schools have also adopted a preference or a set-aside for these students, to help ensure they are serving a population that reflects (at least partly) the student body across DC as a whole. Should this expand more broadly, or change in other ways?
What should our goals be?
So far, there are no specific proposals for any of this. There’s been a variety of speculation, but so far, we don’t know what the administration is interested in proposing, or what committee members want to propose.
I have a few ideas, but before talking about a lot of particular policies, I think it’s important to take a step back and think about what we want a study like this to achieve — what to “solve for.”
Otherwise, we end up jumping past a lot of assumptions and beliefs that people have about student assignment, and then people argue over policies without really being on the same page.
Here are some possible goals, many similar to goals discussed in the 2014 study:
Equity: The education system should promote racial and economic equity, to elevate those furthest from opportunity.
Quality: All students should have access to great* educational options; students with special needs should have access to options that meet those needs.
Capacity: School buildings need to have room for the students and the schools’ educational programming.
Simplicity: The feeder and assignment system should be as simple and easy to understand as possible.
Proximity: Students should not have to travel a long distance for a great* education. (Or, a stronger form: The educational system should strive to minimize the time students have to travel to get to school (while still meeting their needs).
Certainty: Students should have a definite right to attend a specific, knowable school for every grade (and one which represents a great* education)
Diversity: Students attend schools with people from racial and economic backgrounds different from their own.
Opportunity: Students’ ability to access a school they want to attend is not dependent on their family’s ability to pay for real estate in a specific area.
Some of these can conflict. For instance, the very fact we have geographic boundaries for schools increases proximity and certainty, at the expense of opportunity — if you have enough money, you can move to a certain neighborhood, but other people can’t. A system of lottery-based schools without boundaries (like charters and some DCPS schools) have the opposite effect — anyone can go, but getting is random and many people end up driving long distances to various schools.
What’s better? Some people believe one is much better, while others feel the opposite.
Even the question of what is a great education is a big question. There are schools that have higher demand, for sure, but how do we know if a child is actually getting a better education at that school? (Test scores and rankings don’t really tell us, unfortunately.) Maybe school A really is better than school B for everyone. Maybe school A is better for some but not others. Or maybe school A just has higher-income students and a certain reputation, but B would educate anyone just as well or better. How can we know?
I have a few thoughts on these topics, which I will share in upcoming articles. (And I wrote about a lot of this waaay back in 2012 at Greater Greater Washington). But meanwhile, do you think there are goals that are missing here? What should I encourage the committee to look at?
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