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Middle school entry "windows" drive parents crazy. Here are the numbers.
Imagine if, in the United States, about ⅔ of state universities started after 12th grade (as they do in reality), but ⅓ of them enrolled students after 11th grade instead. If you finished 12th grade in high school, you give up any opportunity to one of those. Say… the University of Virginia system admitted 11th graders (and never 12th grade graduates), while Maryland and North Carolina took high school graduates.
Would that be better?
Probably not, right? You’d get a situation where teens who definitely wanted to go to a Virginia school would apply during 11th grade, and teens who definitely didn’t would apply to college in 12th grade, and people who weren’t sure… would sometimes feel pressure to apply in 11th grade anyway, and go to a Virginia school or Georgia or New Jersey (say) whether or not that was right for them. If they got into William and Mary, they’d be nervous about “rolling the dice” the next year on the North Carolina system even if they’d prefer UNC if they got it. Or whatever.
That’s kind of what happens with middle school in DC. There are nine charter middle schools1 and sixteen DCPS middle schools which started in 6th grade this past year.2 Meanwhile, ten charter middle schools3 started in 5th grade, and eleven4 started in 4th grade.
Of those, it’s worth breaking out ones that are part of a feeder pattern from elementary schools; of the schools that aren’t, seven start in 6th grade, five start in 5th, and one in 4th.5
I spoke recently to a parent of a 5th grader at a charter middle school. They and their child had preferred a different charter, which starts in 6th grade. However, their second choice started in 5th. Because there was no guarantee of getting into the top choice charter in a year’s time, they felt somewhat coerced into taking their second choice right away.
They’re happy at the second choice school (so far, anyway), but lost the ability to genuinely choose between the two. The first choice school has many more Black and Hispanic students than the second choice one they ultimately went with. The family lost an opportunity to choose diversity they wanted, and the first choice school, the more diverse one, was put at a disadvantage as well.6
Further, they had to leave their elementary school, which they were quite happy at, before the final year.
We can’t easily quantify how many people would have gone to one school, but didn’t because another school started a year earlier (since they don’t apply to the lottery). But, we can quantify people leaving elementary schools early using OSSE enrollment data and the new student enrollment pathway data from EdScape.
I looked at how many students in 4th grade in 2021-22 didn’t return to the same school for 5th in 2022-23, and how that compared to the overall rate of attrition for all grades. Some schools see up to three times as many students leaving at 5th than in other grades:7
I also looked at how many leave for a different LEA (a school network, like DCPS or Rocketship or Two Rivers) as opposed to just switching schools within LEA or leaving DC public education entirely (moving out of DC, going to private, etc.)8 Combining that number and the relative attrition, I made a rough score to compare schools.
As the table shows, Inspired Teaching has a big rate of people leaving between 4th and 5th for a different LEA, as do DCPS Capitol Hill area schools Maury, Brent, and School-Within-School. Also high on this metric are many other charter schools.
This seems to show that this isn’t a DCPS-specific problem, but one faced by families across sectors.
Here’s a visualization of the schools from the above table:
Of course, people leaving after 4th doesn’t necessarily mean families are feeling coerced about it, as the family I cite above did. Maybe parents just feel it’s time for a change. But, there’s not a particular reason to think parents want out of elementary school after 4th grade; instead, we know there’s this middle school admission discontinuity and plenty of anecdotal stories saying this is very much the reason.
Which schools have these restricted windows?
Not all middle schools are equal in terms of their impact on this situation.
I looked at the same data from the middle school entry point of view, looking at how many students come from a school’s lower grades, its feeders, other LEAs, and so forth.
Here are a set of selected charter schools beginning in 4th, 5th, and 6th:
The green number is the percentage of students in the school’s first year who didn’t come from the same LEA — in other words, not the school’s own feeders. So that’s 17% of students at DC Prep Benning, meaning 83% came from a DC Prep elementary school. Whereas Statesmen College Preparatory Academy doesn’t run an elementary school, so that’s 100%.
For later grades, this chart shows how many people come from outside the school — could be transfers from another middle school in that LEA, if they have more than one, but usually is people from outside the LEA.
What you can see is that most of these schools are taking people throughout middle school. Some have waitlists, others don’t, but the ability to get into one of them in 6th grade is at least relatively similar to the ability to get in at other years. While some people may feel a desire to try the lottery in 4th and 5th as well, there isn’t a specific ”window” that closes for most of the schools, including at Friendship, KIPP, or E.L. Haynes.
On the other hand, the DC Prep middle schools, BASIS, and Latin basically are not taking people in 6th grade. They have considerably higher rates (or 100%) of out-of-LEA admission in 5th and/or 4th than in 6th, and then don’t offer spaces in 6th grade and above.
I’d like to see an overarching policy that helps reduce this pain for families and give them the real choices they want instead of forcing them to make a premature choice that leaves other schools out. I’ve suggested in the past that all middle schools start at the same time, though based on this data, I think it’s fine to leave alone some of the networks that start in 4th or 5th but don’t slam the door. Some kind of more narrowly tailored rule could fix things where it’s a bigger problem without broader disruption.
You can access the data and my calculations here. What do you think should be done?
Capital Village PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy, Digital Pioneers Academy PCS - Johenning, DC International School, Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science PCS, Monument Academy PCS, Paul PCS, The Sojourner Truth School PCS, and Two Rivers PCS - Young started in 6th grade this year.
Paul PCS got approval to add 5th grade for fall 2023.
BASIS DC PCS, Capital City PCS, E.L. Haynes PCS, 5 KIPP middle schools, Social Justice PCS, and Washington Latin PCS start in 5th.
3 DC Prep middle schools, 6 Friendship middle schools, KIPP DC - Honor Academy PCS, and Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS start in 4th.
The “feeder pattern” middle schools are the KIPPs (6), Friendships (6), DC Preps (3), EL Haynes, and Capital City; all of these had 67% or more of their incoming middle school students coming from schools in their same network. All DCPS middle schools have feeder elementary schools; while DCPS has “citywide” (i.e. lottery-only or application-only) pre-K centers, elementary schools, and high schools, no middle schools are of this type.
They could have gone to the second choice school and immediately tried to apply to the first choice school a year later, but changing schools is disruptive for kids, so people don’t do that kind of thing lightly.
The Enrollment Pathway data reports just “N<10” for any path from one school to another that had ten or fewer students last year, for privacy. Three (smaller) schools had under ten people returning from 4th to 5th last year: Ross Elementary School, Shining Stars Montessori Academy PCS, and Roots PCS, so I couldn’t compute a return percentage and omitted them from the table. (For 2022, anyway; I know Ross has about 20 returning 4th graders this year, and look forward to seeing 2023 data on EdScape in the future!)
Because of the N<10 privacy screen, I had to estimate the percentages of leavers going to a different LEA by calculating the total enrollment and subtracting the lines that had actual numbers (over 10), then dividing the remainder among all N<10s. This is not completely accurate, since N<10s can be 1 or 9, but it gets us something generally in the ballpark.