Redrawing School Boundaries

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Widely differing school utilization rates are just one challenge the Boundary and Student Assignment Study aims to address. Image: DME

The process of changing school boundaries for DC Public Schools (DCPS) is underway. The 2023 Boundary and Student Assignment Study, or Boundary Study, reviews boundaries and feeder patterns and District-wide public school student assignment policies and makes recommendations to the mayor for changes. Recommendations are due to be submitted to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) no later than February 2024.

The study was launched in March through the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). It is the first update to school by-right attendance boundaries since 2013-2014, when DC undertook its first comprehensive review of boundaries in 40 years.

DME is running a Master Facilities Plan (MFP) study at the same time and the two have some overlap in the review of  building condition, resources and utilization. Any potential boundary modifications and feeder recommendations would take effect no sooner than the 2025-26 school year, i.e., August of 2025.

“We are embarking on a city-wide planning process that will provide strategic, data-informed recommendations to ensure more students have access to great schools and facilities that meet their needs,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn.

The process will be essential to the ongoing work needed to not only recover from the negative repercussions of the COVID pandemic, but to continue efforts to close the opportunity gap, Kihn added. “We know that residents will have strong thoughts and feedback, and we look forward to engaging directly with families, educators, and stakeholders over the coming weeks and months,” he said.

What This Means

DC law requires each child to be assigned to a school, determined by lines drawn around the area in which they live. That school is called the “boundary” school or “by-right” school. Students have the right to attend the boundary school if they live within the area designated. Feeder patterns determine which middle school and then which high school students have the right to attend based on what by-right school they are coming from.

DC Law requires a boundary study to be conducted in 2023 and every ten years afterward, re-examining the area boundaries, feeder patterns, the capacity of schools and whether all students have equitable access to high-quality DCPS schools. Studies are supposed to recommend ways to even out overcrowded and underutilized schools, balance unequal or problematic feeder programs, look at early childhood learning opportunities and address equity and diversity in the schools.

Who is Making Decisions?

DME has contracted with a team led by Perkins Eastman, a global design/architecture firm, including WXY Studio, LINK Strategic Partners and The DC Policy Center to support both the boundary and facilities studies. As of the beginning of August, they have completed the first of three rounds of District-wide town halls for both the Boundary Study and MFP 2023.

The public had their first opportunity to weigh-in on changes at open town halls held May 16 and 17. A second round originally scheduled for July will now take place in September. While DME initially announced that a third set of meetings is planned, those are not yet scheduled. (See updated town hall dates at https://dme.dc.gov/boundaries2023)

That is partly at the request of the Advisory Committee on Student Assignment. The Advisory Committee (AC) is composed of education stakeholders from all eight wards. Members of the AC were recommended by education stakeholders and selected by the DME to reflect the District’s public school education system, including ward of residence and enrollment preferences.

The AC has met monthly since March to examine data and information and discuss their findings. Eventually, they will create recommendations for attendance zones, feeder patterns, and school assignment policies.

In June, the AC finalized a set of principles to guide their work. These include: a strong system of by-right neighborhood schools; equitable access to high-quality schools; predictable and continuous access to schools; and racially and socio-economically diverse schools.

Next, they will begin to formulate recommendations to address these and other concerns. DME will engage with school communities that may be significantly affected by any boundary or feeder pattern revision scenario. These will be determined as the scenarios are developed and information becomes available from the Master Facilities Plan 2023 (https://dme.dc.gov/node/1649826)

Factors Committee is Considering

AC recommendations for changes in boundary or feeder policy will try to satisfy the requirements of law and to address challenges within the system.

At meetings, members have looked at issues such as the widely differing utilization of schools, which is higher in Northwest than in Southeast, and the correlation between utilization and program offerings. They have examined the racial, ethnic, and at-risk segregation of individual schools, which differs even within schools in the same feeder pattern. And they have looked at how well access to schools meets family needs by examining lottery waitlists and the distances travelled by families to the schools their child is enrolled in.

While redrawing boundaries for individual schools or feeder patterns seems like the most basic tool to address these, the AC could also recommend a host of policy changes. They could consider offering a “choice set,” or multiple in-bounds schools within a geographic area. Recommendations could employ various weighted lottery preferences, for instance giving additional preference to at-risk students. Members could recommend changes in programming, adding offerings to schools or providing shared access at one site to students from, for example, more than one high school. Grades could be reconfigured at various schools, or programming expanded in terms of early childhood or secondary opportunities. Lottery preferences could be added, and some schools could see changes to the number of out-of-boundary seats offered.

The committee has not yet begun formulating those ideas. In the three initial meetings, members have said they want to understand the reasons behind each priority challenge before they make recommendations to address it. For example, they asked why families choose not to enroll in their by-right schools? Is it a matter of what is or is not actually offered, or of perception?

That is, in part, why the July town hall meeting was delayed. At that meeting, DME was scheduled to share and solicit feedback on drafted student assignment policies, DCPS boundaries and feeder scenarios. But committee members requested time to ask for more information and data from DME prior to formulating these policies and scenarios. Members also were assigned by the DME team to speak with families in the public and public charter system to better understand the motivations behind various decisions they made for their students.

What Happens to  My Student?

That is the question on the minds of most families: how will the recommendations affect the students? First, it is important to understand that change is still a long way in the future. The process of reconsidering school boundaries lasts a full twelve months. After the Mayor receives recommendations in February 2024, she is expected to consider and give final approval by August of that year. This provides time for families and schools to learn about the changes prior to the lottery for the 2025-2026 school year. Changes will first take effect in fall 2025. Students will have completed two full school years between now and then.

But the process will also have some transition time. DME has indicated that this process is likely to follow the same phase-in processes used in 2013 (see https://dcps.dc.gov/publication/boundaries-and-feeder-pattern-changes-faq). According to those rules, if your school boundaries change but your child was attending their old in-boundary school prior to the changes, they could continue there or choose the new in-boundary school. If they ever opt out of their old school, they cannot go back. If the 2013 rules are followed, this choice will also apply to incoming students with a sibling at the old in-boundary school, but only for the first year the new boundaries are in effect.

The same rule would apply to feeder patterns. If a student were to enter middle or high school in fall 2025 and their feeder pattern had changed, they could choose between either the old or new by-right upper school —but the choice is available only for that year.

This will change things for those who bought a home thinking it was in-bounds for a particular school or who have an eldest or only child that will not yet be school-aged or is not in DCPS before fall 2025. In these circumstances, if the school boundaries change, the child’s presumed school will change. The old in-boundary school could then only be entered by DC School Lottery.

Students who are already at a DCPS school, including those who have entered a school through the DC School Lottery, will not be reassigned because of boundary changes. If your child is at a charter or private school, their by-right school is now the new boundary school; the change does not affect them unless they withdraw from the current, non-DCPS school. If their by-right school changes, it will only affect them if they withdraw from that institution and need another place to learn. Their by-right/in-bounds school is supposed to take them.

September Town Hall Meetings:

Find your current boundary school and feeder pattern online at enrolldcps.dc.gov/node/41

Information regarding the Advisory Committee members, meetings, and materials are posted to https://dme.dc.gov/boundaries2023.

For more information, visit https://dme.dc.gov/boundaries2023 See the full list of advisory Committee Members at https://dme.dc.gov/node/1649621