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School Boundary Changes Under Consideration

The Deputy Mayor of Education (DME) has reached the point in their Boundary and Student Assignment Study where recommendations are being made that impact specific schools. This is part of a reexamination of feeder patterns and school boundaries required by DC law every ten years. The last boundary study took place in 2013.

Changes proposed in November could have impacted most Hill schools, with the biggest changes at Brent, Maury, Miner, Payne as well as the Cluster Schools (Peabody, Watkins and Stuart Hobson).

But on Dec. 20, DME and the Advisory Committee announced that the bulk of those recommendations were off the table, including boundary changes affecting Brent, the Cluster Schools and Payne. However, probably the most contentious idea remains under consideration. That’s a proposal to recommend that Miner and Maury elementaries be paired into a single elementary school located in two different buildings.

More than 200 people attended a Dec. 4 meeting hosted by Charles Allen on the boundary study. Many more also attended town halls hosted by the DME on Dec. 12 and 13.

At his meeting, Allen emphasized that changes are an executive function. They do not require approval from either the DC Council or the Board of Education. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) is expected to receive the DME recommendations by February. Deputy Mayor Paul Kihn said the DME was trying to get to a set of recommendations “that are broadly considered to be in the best interests of all.”

Here are some of the changes that were discussion and the potential affect schools on the Hill.

A New Cluster School? Miner and Maury
Most of the air at Allen’s meeting and the DME Town Halls in December was taken up by the proposal to pair Miner and Maury Elementaries. The proposed solution to racial and socio-economic disparities between the two schools is to blend them into a “paired” elementary school something like the cluster—with Miner serving grades from pre-K3 to 2 and Maury serving grades 3 through 5. DME did note a possible alternative: implementing at-risk seat reservation for schools where at-risk students account for 30 percent or lower enrollment. “What we can see is, just looking at the target outcome of that percentage, it does more evenly distribute it.”

But while DME Director of Planning and Analysis Jennifer Comey gave modeling for multiple Hill schools at the Dec. 14 meeting, as of that date DME had not yet modeled Maury and Miner.

Privileging the Privileged?
Both school communities have complaints about the way the proposal to pair the schools was presented to each community. Maury Elementary (1250 Constitution Ave. NE) learned about the idea far earlier than Miner, with a DME-led meeting with the Maury school community held Nov. 28. The Maury PTA reached out to members of the Miner PTO.

Secretary of Miner Elementary (601 15th St. NE) PTO Julie Muir attended the virtual Nov. 28 Maury Elementary community meeting. There she noted in the chat that to her knowledge the school community had not been informed of any of these plans and that she herself only learned through friends and neighbors with links to Miner.

(In the weeks since, DME has scheduled a Dec. 19 meeting with the Miner Elementary Local School Advisory Team (LSAT), an elected board of parents and teachers that advises the principal on how to run the school). The LSAT meeting took place three weeks after the Maury meeting; as of Dec. 15, a meeting with the wider school community had still not been scheduled.

At the meeting he hosted, Allen said he had heard from several parents about this problem. “I think that it really undermines some of the concerns that you’ve outlined of your goals overall and I definitely want to respect the Miner community’s concerns,” he told Kihn Dec. 4.

In response, Kiihn said that DME “heard the feedback and we take it on board.”

But Kihn deflected some responsibility, saying that had DME reached out to the schools simultaneously, noting the DME usually works through principals as primary point of contact. However, Miner Principal Lawrence Dance stepped down from his role Nov. 27, the day before the Maury meeting. “The Miner leadership change really stalled us.”

Kihn said DME would be happy to hold multiple meetings at the Miner and would work hard to ensure they are incorporating voices from those families.

Response
The discussion threw into stark relief the diversity and division that is still present within what seems to be a single community on the Hill. A Maury Elementary PTA president (Maury’s PTA allows for dual executive officers) argued in multiple Town Halls that if DME wanted to merge the communities, the method by which the concept was introduced has done more to divide than unify.

Although only about a half a mile apart, if one goes by the data, the two schools are extremely different. Miner is a Title 1 school, meaning that 40 percent or more of the students qualify for the federal free lunch program. Maury Elementary was a Title 1 school until the 2013-2014 school year, when 31 percent of the students qualified for the free lunch program.

By 2013, Maury was a magnet school; it was designated a blue ribbon school in 2020, recognizing overall academic excellence and progress in closing the achievement gap.

But other gaps had widened. The population living in-bounds for Maury is 25 percent Black, while those living in Miner boundaries are 73 percent black. Maury’s student population is 21 percent Black while 80 percent of the students at Miner identify as Black.

64 percent of students living in-boundary for Maury are attending their boundary school; only 26 percent of Miner students living in bounds attend their school. There is also a disparity in at-risk populations; at-risk enrollment at Maury in 2022-23 is 12 percent and at Miner, 64 percent.

Speaking at the Maury’s school community meeting Nov. 28, DME representative Comey said there are 44 pairs of adjacent elementary schools that have a difference of more than 25 percentage points in at-risk student enrollment. For most of those, 37 pairs, the difference is less than 50 percent. But for seven pairs, the difference is 50 percent or more. Of those seven, Miner and Maury are the only pair without a geographic barrier (such as a busy highway) preventing a cluster solution; Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn pointed to this when asked why more racially segregated schools in Northwest were not being clustered to increase diversity at a Dec. 4 meeting.

Some Maury parents pointed to the existing cluster school, arguing that whatever its past successes (it was founded in the early 80s), at this moment it does not appear to be a model for the stated goals of shared diversity across race, socioeconomic background, or at risk status. Peabody elementary is approaching 60% white and 70% in bounds; meanwhile, Watkins is closer to 70% black, and under 40% in bounds. They also pointed to the effect on the current classes; students in both schools currently in kindergarten will switch schools twice over their elementary school careers.

Others asked what the implication of the paired schools would have on the Title 1 status currently held by Miner. That funding permits free school lunch and additional staffing and supports and is applied to Miner’s campus, not a paired school.

Some of the comments cut to the quick. Members of the Miner community expressed their feeling that comments at town halls from those identifying themselves with Maury, including “I bought my house to attend Maury,” or that a paired school would “dilute” their community were hurtful and offensive to Miner families.

The new paried school remains on the table, although DME has said they will examine other solutions to the disparties, such as a more surgical redrawing of boundaries. They have also said they would run analytics on the impact of an at-risk set aside. Those results are expected in January.

Ideas Removed

On Dec. 20, the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME) technical team and Advisory Committee on the 2023 Boundary and Student Assignment Study agreed to remove revisions or reduction of out of boundary seats for Brent Elementary, opting to consider the pending school modernization as the sole strategy to deal with overutilization.

Changes considered for Peabody-Watkins (the Cluster School), where the Southeast portion of the boundary was to be reduced and the Northeast portion increased, were also dropped. As a result, there was no need to revise the boundary for Payne Elementary School to offset impacts.

Cluster Schools
Changes were proposed for the original cluster school, which includes Peabody (425 C St NE, serving Prek-3 through kindergarten), and Watkins Elementary (420 12 St. SE, serving grades 1 to 5). There, the challenge was that an expansive, slash-shaped boundary for the cluster school means that some families in the southeast corner of the boundary are distant from Peabody. Some of these families live across the street from Payne but are in bounds for Peabody.

DME Proposed Solutions, Peabody-Watkins, Brent and Payne Elementaries. Screenshot: Payne School Presentation, dme.dc.gov

The proposed solution is a Cluster school boundary reduction in southeast corner, putting families living there in-bounds for pre-K at Payne Elementary (1425 C St. SE). This population loss would be countered by a southward expansion in the northeast arm of the cluster school boundary, now in-bounds for Brent Elementary. The portion of the Brent Elementary (301 N. Carolina Ave. SE) school boundary north of Pennsylvania Avenue would be assigned to Peabody-Watkins.

According to the DME boundary tool, these changes would increase Payne’s population but would decrease the at-risk population. For Peabody-Watkins, that would reduce utilization to low, “which is something of a flag for us,” Comey allowed.

Cluster families are concerned that changes could reduce the diversity of the school population. At the Dec. 14 DME Town Hall, Comey said that changes would decrease the diversity at Watkins and increase it at Peabody.

The Peabody-Watkins community expressed concern about reducing diversity, enrollment and utilization. They worried that the removal of these families includes many who have generationally gone to Watkins for elementary school. Finally, the Payne community has expressed concern that these changes will drive over-enrollment. They have already had a large increase in student population this past year. On Dec. 20, DME agreed and dropped the changes.

Brent
As touched on above, DME believes that Brent Elementary has been experiencing overcrowding. DME proposed cutting a portion of the Northeast corner of Brent’s boundary out and adding it to Peabody/Watkins.

Brent’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) drafted a community letter arguing that any perceived overcrowding at Brent would be best addressed by the school modernization that is already on the books. Brent has an upcoming modernization that will increase space in the future, with design expected to begin in 2024. The modernization will increase the school’s capacity from the low 400’s to 500 students and is supposed to reopen for school year 2027.

Comey said that DME decisions would not affect those plans. “The modernization is happening regardless of the recommendations in the boundary study,” said Comey. She noted that the office has heard concerns that families who get in for Peabody will not continue on to Watkins; they also still have proximity preference to Brent.

Another proposed solution was to reduce out of boundary seats, now at about 30 percent and largely centered in the grades above kindergarten. But, Connelly noted, that would have a ripple effect on other schools.

These adjustments would also change the middle school pattern for affected families; Watkins students go to Stuart Hobson, whereas Payne families go to Eliot Hine and Brent students to Jefferson Middle School Academy.

Brent’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) wrote a sign-on community letter indicating their opposition to this plan, worrying it would alter the parameters of the upcoming modernization project. They are also concerned that the boundary change would cause an enrollment drop. Because enrollment is directly linked to DCPS budgets, that could result in a drop in school funding. Families also argue that the proposal will make it harder for out of boundary students to attend Brent, citing particularly the long-term links as families at Joint Base Anacostia Boling send students to Brent. On Dec. 20, DME dropped the proposed changes.

Chisholm (Tyler) Elementary
The newly re-named Chisholm Elementary (Tyler) lacks nearby dual language middle school programming. The solution proposed to switch its programmatic feeder from Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHECH) and MacFarland to Jefferson MS, giving the latter dual language programming at the middle school level. However, families are concerned about resourcing at Jefferson and want to see evidence that such a program would rise to the need of fully bilingual students. DME said that would require deep engagement with the community before it could be implemented.

Time is short. While DME says the plans are not final and conversation is open, they are trying to determine which recommendations they will forward to the school communities over two months.

DME is to submit final recommendations to the mayor for approval by February 2024. The changes would go into effect at start of SY2025.

There is still some time to provide input. You do not have to attend the schools to give your views; statements all members of the community are welcome.

The best way to continue providing feedback is at https://www.dcschoolboundaryexplorer.com/ until Jan. 30 where you can leave comments. There is also a form on the DME website: look under “Community Feedback” at https://dme.dc.gov/node/1644431.

This story was originally submitted Dec. 14 for the January 2024 print edition of the Hill Rag. It has been updated to include changes to proposals made Dec. 20 by the DME Advisory Committee.

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