This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
For the first time in more than three decades, the District of Columbia is redrawing its school boundaries and feeder patterns, the geographic lines that determine which schools students attend. It’s a process being watched closely by thousands of anxious parents, many of whom select homes based on neighborhood schools. Kojo explores how school maps will be redrawn and how the process will play out before the changes take effect in the 2015-2016 school year.
- Sam Chaltain Writer and education activist; author of "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice" (Spring 2014)
- Evelyn Boyd Simmons Co-chair of the Education Committee of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 2; community leader and parent
- Abigail Smith Deputy Mayor for Education, District of Columbia
Abigail Smith, D.C.’s deputy mayor for education, talks about the district’s plan to change school boundaries and feeding patterns, slated to start during the 2015-2016 school year. Smith said, under the plan, students will not be moved from schools they’re currently attending. “We expect to have some pretty significant grandfathering provisions,” Smith said.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's the announcement that sparks fearful worry or hopeful anticipation, depending on where you live in the District of Columbia. This week the D.C. government said it would begin an effort to overhaul school boundaries and feeder patterns. It's the first time the maps have been redrawn in more than three decades. And it's not a project for the faint of heart. No other municipal issue combines the explosive mix of race, class and real estate quite like school assignment and districting, but this is only the beginning of the process. And the government says it welcomes input from everyone.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo before you pull up stakes and move to the suburbs, why not weigh in with your vision for what our neighborhood schools should look like. It's input our first guest, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith would welcome. Abigail Smith joins us in studio. She is, as I said, Deputy Mayor for Education for the District of Columbia. Welcome, good to see you again.
MS. ABIGAIL SMITHGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe've been talking about school boundaries for a long time and finally the city is undertaking this massive project. But before we dive into how remapping D.C. schools could unfold, remind us of the changes in the city that got us here in the first place.
SMITHSo, as you noted, Kojo, it's been over three decades -- it's actually been over four decades since a comprehensive review and revision of school boundaries in the city. And during that time there have been lots of changes in population. So we've had -- many families have moved out of the city over that time. We're now shifting that trend. And during that time dozens of schools have closed and dozens of new schools have opened in other places in the city. So it's a totally different picture than the last time school boundaries were revised. And it's a bit of a mess now for families.
NNAMDIOf course there's a lot of concern that these new boundaries will limit access to some of the best performing and most overcrowded schools, including places like Alice Deal Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High. How are you addressing those concerns?
SMITHSo as you started in your intro, this is certainly a process that creates a lot of anxiety for families. We're committed one, to a process that is really open and engages the community in this discussion because it is important to families. So that's number one. And we want to end up with policies that provide clarity and predictability for families and support their access to high-quality schools. So it's going to be certainly a challenging process but that's the part -- that's sort of the point we want to end up in.
SMITHThe other thing that I'll note is we know that families right now, with their kids in schools, are worried about, will this affect me and where my kids goes to school next year and my kid who's already enrolled in schools? We absolutely plan to, first of all, not move any kid from a school that they are currently in. So that is not something that we expect to do in this process. And we expect to have some pretty significant grandfathering provisions so that for families that are just entering a feeder pattern, that this doesn't impact them without a long enough runway to be able to plan for that.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What are your concerns going into this process? Do you think your neighborhood could be affected by the district school boundary overhaul, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also joining us in studio is Sam Chaltain, writer and education activist. He's the author of the upcoming book "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice." Sam Chaltain, good to see you again.
MR. SAM CHALTAINGood, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us, Evelyn Boyd Simmons is the co-chair of the Education Committee of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 2. She's also a community leader and a parent. Evelyn Boyd Simmons, thank you for joining us.
MS. EVELYN BOYD SIMMONSThank you.
NNAMDIEvelyn, outreach is a key component as this overhaul takes place. And you've been asked to be a community advisor in this process. As the parent of two young public school children, what are your concerns going into this and what are you hearing from other parents?
SIMMONSWell, I think my concern is that the whole process have credibility and reach its goal. It's really great that such a far-flung group of brains has been assembled to address what is definitely going to be a tricky process. I think how parents feel about the process, as I think you alluded to earlier, depends a lot on what cards they're holding. I think if you're holding a hand that you like, then you're not that eager to see the deck reshuffled and the game changed. I think if you don't like the cards that you're holding, you're eager to have the deck shuffled. So it really just depends.
SIMMONSI think one value that parents that I talk to seem to have is they really seem to want a school of high quality close to them that they don't have to compete against other parents to get into. So originally the thought was that the charter sector and the D.C.P.S. sector would compete for kids. I think a lot of us perceive that what's really happening is parents compete against each other for too few covenant seats in really great schools.
NNAMDII'll see your hand and raise you one. What does your hand look like at this point, in your opinion, where your kids are?
SIMMONSSo I think I have more jokers in my hand than an average deck would normally hold. I have -- we're currently at Oyster which is out of boundary for us. We were placed there because my son has special needs. And we are layering a Spanish language acquisition on top of an expressive verbal delay, which we're still working out now. My daughter who's five is doing much better. But, you know, I lucked out somehow in this system as it currently exists because I got placed there because I was fortunate enough to have a son with special needs. There's something wrong with that.
NNAMDIWell, I held jokers too when my sons were ready for elementary school. They too ended up at Oyster out of boundary. But that was in another millennium.
SIMMONSYou had to wait in line probably, Kojo...
NNAMDII sure did have to wait in line to do that.
SIMMONS...and camp out.
NNAMDISam, there are a lot of ideas out there about how boundaries could be redrawn and how school choice could change. But what cities have done this well? And more importantly again, what cities have done this in what seems to be a fair manner?
CHALTAINWell, that is the core question. I love Evelyn's analogy of the cards that you're holding because what's exciting when a city tackles an issue like this is they're directly confronting this issue of fairness. Everybody talks about Thurgood Marshall's historic victory in Brown versus Board. But there's a lesser known case from '73 when Marshall was now on the court and a bunch of Texas families brought suit, saying that the way that schools were funded and children were allocated, which has always been basically by property taxes, was an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
CHALTAINAnd we came within one vote of the Supreme Court of overturning the way that schools have historically been funded. And not surprisingly, Marshall was the primary voice in defense who said, if the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't apply to this then how are we ever going to approach a question of fairness? But with regard to your question so, I mean, Cambridge, Mass. as far back as 1980, started experimenting with a process whereby they asked families to volunteer whether or not they would be signing up for free and reduced lunch, which is a pretty good indication of socioeconomic status.
CHALTAINAnd then did their best to balance the wishes of the families of where they would send their child to school with the needs -- explicitly stated needs of the community to establish really balanced integrated schools. There are lots of other models in San Diego. I don't know if this is citywide or -- I know it's true at High Tech High. They do a zip code lottery, which is a very interesting way of ensuring that you're going to get a really nice representation of kids from across the city, which is also guaranteed to result in all kinds of diversity, racial, socioeconomic, etcetera.
CHALTAINSo there's definitely precedent that we can look to in figuring this out. But I appreciate what Abigail has said, that they're going to be beginning the process as open as possible because in many respects we are the tip of the spear. We've got 44 percent of the kids that are in charter schools. We've got a huge intra city migration, even for kids that attend district schools that are out of boundary. So we have a responsibility to demonstrate to the rest of the country how to do this right.
NNAMDIWe're talking about refiguring D.C. school boundaries, Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Did you move to a neighborhood in D.C. specifically because of the schools? What are your concerns now, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to email@example.com. Abigail, what kind of options are there on the table for how the city could redraw its school boundaries and how could charter schools be impacted?
SMITHSo in terms of what's on the table, the way we're approaching this is that anything and everything is on the table. We really want to go into this in a very open-minded way and look at what other cities are doing and have done, learn lessons from that. And hear what kinds of ideas community members have around how we might think about it in D.C. So I really do think that the options are you-name-it, in terms of what we will be considering.
SMITHIn terms of the charter school role -- so the bulk of the work that we're talking about through this process will be focused on DCPS and its boundaries because charters, of course, don't have boundaries, and DCPS's feeder patterns. That said, because, as Sam just pointed out, 44 percent of our public school kids are in public charter schools, it would be irresponsible and just sort of illogical of us to ignore that whole part of the picture as we think about how DCPS boundaries look. So making sure that we understand where kids do currently attend school, what the mobility patterns are and who is taking advantage of different kinds of schools and different kinds of options is absolutely going to be critical to this.
SMITHAnd at the same time we think it is an important opportunity to look at are there cross sector? So between DCPS and public charter schools, are there cross-sector ideas that we might pursue? Whether it's feeder patterns that might go between a DCPS school and a charter school or vice versa. Whether it's looking at what the transfer policies are and are there ways to think about that, that take into account both DCPS and public charter schools.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back -- if you have called, stay on the line. We will take your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. Could your school choices improve if boundaries shift in the city? 800-433-8850. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about refiguring D.C. school boundaries. We're talking with Evelyn Boyd Simmons. She's the co-chair of the education committee of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 2. She's also a community leader and parent. Sam Chaltain is a writer an education activist. He's the author of the upcoming book, "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice." And Abigail Smith is deputy mayor for education for the District of Columbia. I'd like to go directly to the phones and talk with -- well, she is no longer there. But let's start with Ben, in Berryville, Va. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENThank you for taking my call. I grew up in Hyattsville, but I was zoned for University of Park elementary school. University Park is where a lot of the University of Maryland faculty and a lot of the Goddard Space Flight people, their faculty there, but their homes. So you had a lot of smart parents with a lot of secondary degrees. And so their kids, obviously, did better than average in standardized testing. I mean, you know, I think our music teacher won a Grammy for the Maryland Boy Choir one year. But the point is, is that when you're allocating the kids, aren't you essentially also allocating the parents and their resources and their backgrounds?
BENAnd, you know, like when I was moved into high school, my parents said, well, if you can test into Roosevelt Science and Tech great, if not, we'll pay for you to go to Gonzaga, but we will not let you go to Northwestern.
NNAMDII'm glad you raised that question, Ben, because, Sam Chaltain, you've suggested that our five digit zip codes have become like lottery tickets to the American dream. And many people in this city might agree with that. Do you believe that D.C.'s plan to overhaul its school map is a way to correct that, the fact that people in different zip codes have different experiences based on their relative level of education of affluence?
CHALTAINIt's an opportunity to do that. The challenge -- there's so many different pieces that are a part of this. I just was re-reading Plato's "Republic." And one of the points that Plato makes in his vision of the ideal republic -- and I’m not suggesting this, before I say anything further, for D.C. policy -- but the vision is that all children and spouses are basically held in common. The idea being that the only way you create an ideal and egalitarian society is you have to remove self-interest from the equation. So no adult has any idea which child is technically theirs, and therefore everyone values each child the same. Now…
NNAMDIThis Plato, what D.C. public school did he attend?
CHALTAINYeah, exactly. But what's interesting to me is part of what we're doing is actually going in the opposite direction. I'm not talking about what Abigail is doing, but in general, we're doubling down on self-interest. Whereas, what Plato was suggesting is that the only way you create a healthy society is by removing it. So hopefully, really thinking through the boundary issue and getting it right is going to help us find the happy medium between those two extremes.
NNAMDIEvelyn, what has been the impact of the current system on parent involvement in neighborhood education issues?
SIMMONSI think it throws a lot of things into uncertainty. So for example, we don't know what the boundaries and feeders process will yield for our neighborhood, but there has been a small group of parents and community members who have talked about the possibility of sort of forming a non-profit organization to support the schools in the feeder system. When you don't know what those schools will be -- it's very labor intensive to develop the relationships with the teachers and principals, to collaborate across A and C's and across ward boundaries, as we have, between Wards 1 and 2.
SIMMONSNot having a focus, I think, really causes the energy that could gather around a school to dissipate. We were talking in the hall a little bit before we walked in and talking about the difference between community and neighborhoods. I talked to a lot of parents who really value that neighborhood connection. Community can spring up in any school. Anywhere that people have a common shared set of interests and experience. By definition, you have a certain level of community. But neighborhood -- it implies that you have some face-to-face contact from time to time. And when parents are rendered asunder by having their school community in one part of the city, and their home community in a different party, it just spreads us very thinly.
NNAMDIThat talking in the hall thing that you mentioned, not allowed at this school. So don't -- We got a tweet, Abigail Smith, "Will the data the school boundary committee uses be available? There needs to be an open data approach from the start for real engagement."
SMITHYeah, I think that's a great point. All of the data that we're looking at will be available, again, on our website. And then through all of these various engagement processes we'll be walking people through the data. So that's the demographic data, the student mobility data. Obviously, all of it will be anonymous data so we won't be identifying any families or kids. But we do want the community to be able to see the same data that our technical team is going to be working with as they actually build the boundaries.
NNAMDIAnd then we got a tweet from Elaine, who says, "How will this rezoning," meaning, I guess, the reconfiguring of school districts, "impact the Capitol Hill cluster schools?" Would you know that at this point?
SMITHSo we don't know that at this point.
NNAMDIThe last time you were on this show, Abigail, you talked about how grandfathering positions would ease the transition for kids who have to move schools. You already mentioned that if someone is currently in a school they won't have to go to another school, but do you have any other details about how that would work?
SMITHSo the principle on grandfathering we're clear on, which is that if part of the whole goal of this is to provide continuity for families, the last thing we want to do is to undermine that goal in the process itself. So that means that first of all our final plan is expected in September of 2014. And then no changes would go into effect until the following school year, so the fall of 2015. So no matter what, everyone will have a year to even see what those changes will be. And at the point that changes do go into effect in 2015, we do expect that there'll be some grandfathering.
SMITHWe don't know what exactly that will look like. And that will be one of the things that comes out in the process. So are we looking at siblings? Are we, you know, some people joked that people are going to be interested in grandfathering their grandchildren. I don't think we're going to go quite that far, but we certainly do want to provide that kind of continuity and stability for families wherever we can.
NNAMDIHere is Dave, in Washington. Dave, your turn.
DAVEYes. Using the card analogy, I'm holding a pretty good hand right now in the Deal and Wilson feeder system, but that was not always the hand we had when we first moved here. They were practically giving houses away. People thought we were crazy to move to this city, but we rolled the dice. We stuck it out. It's been a good thing for us, but I almost feel like we could get penalized for making this investment in time and energy in our neighborhood and in our schools.
NNAMDITo which you say, Abigail Smith?
SMITHSo clearly, the Deal and Wilson boundary in particular, are ones that are going to create a fair bit of anxiety through this process. So we know that. And the community has been really eager to start the conversations. Lots of people have already signed up for focus groups and working groups, which is great. I think that the challenge that exists at both Deal and Wilson now, which is probably known by most folks at this point, is that both of those schools are beyond packed to the gills. And the population looks like it's only getting bigger in terms of what those schools are going to be.
SMITHAnd they simply can't manage the total numbers. So we are going to have to figure something out. The status quo isn't going to work. And I know that for families like yours, David, who invested in these communities and have had a great experience with the schools, that that creates an immense amount of anxiety. I don't know what is going to happen with those boundaries. And obviously we're at the very front end of the process, but I do know that there are going to be some really tough conversations we're going to have to have with regard to what those boundaries look like. And I, again, invite the community to engage in that with us. I'm sure that there are lots of creative ideas, that if we all put our heads together, can mitigate to a great degree the anxiety that families have and still end up with something that's good for the city.
NNAMDIDave, thank you very much for your call. Sam Chaltain, frankly, anyone or all can respond to these questions because there have been proposals in the city government to do this process every ten years or so. School populations continue to climb. I'll start with you Sam Chaltain. Is redrawing boundaries something that needs to be considered more often than every 30 years?
CHALTAINI think unquestionably. Why not in tandem with the census? But I mean there are folks that suggest radical proposals, like why not just doing away with boundaries entirely? I mean, so if you're really -- if the challenge of a community is always to figure out the best way to balance the me and the we, and if we know that we have a growing number of good schools in D.C., we need more, but we have a growing number of good schools, and the disproportionate interest in getting into just two of those schools, Deal and Wilson, is more just a reflection of where people live, believing that they are literally buying their lottery ticket to -- I don't know that in the ultimate service of a larger community that makes sense.
CHALTAINGoing back to the fact that in 1973 we came within a vote of the Supreme Court saying it didn't make sense. So it's certainly a conversation that we need to be having far more often than every 30 years.
NNAMDIEvelyn Boyd Simmons?
SIMMONSYou know, I agree with what Sam is saying. Another part of me says, you know, it really isn't quite that complicated. It's not rocket science. It's much, much harder. It's actually social science. And I think what needs to happen is there simply needs to be more schools that parents have confidence in. For reasons that parents can articulate and only parents, and students possibly, can articulate. So why is it -- where is it written that this part of town is the only part of town that can produce and sustain schools that parents have confidence in? I think that's a real open question that we need to be honest about asking and answering. But I think having the parent perspective is the only way to get at what the real answers are.
NNAMDIIndeed, talking about Wilson and Deal junior high school, which you brought up earlier, Abigail Smith, councilmember Muriel Bowser says that she is opposed to any plan that would draw a line in our city down the middle of Rock Creek Park to change boundaries, so that people who are east of the park don't have access to schools that are west of the park. That said, what is the possibility that there could be such a line drawn down the middle of Rock Creek Park?
SMITHSo, again, it's way too early in the process for us to have any kinds of specifics on this. That said, one of the things that was interesting to me, the first meeting that we had of the advisory committee that's going to be guiding us through this process was just on Monday. Seems like forever ago. And we spent some time with that group looking at what are the values that we are bringing to this process. And there are lots of different values. Some of which we've talked about today. So what are the values of going to a school that's very close by to your home in your neighborhood? What are the values of being able to access lots of choices?
SMITHBut one of the values that many people -- I would say most, if not everybody in the group -- really seemed to think was important was the value of diverse schools. So where we can make that happen, there seemed to be a high value on that. Diversity both economically and racially. Now, there are lots of different practical realities to be able to do that, but I think that is a value that seems to me, based on the initial conversations, is going to be one we're going to be talking about a lot.
NNAMDIRunning out time very quickly, but we got this tweet, also from Elaine. "What school districts has the city looked at to gain insight and what were the lessons learned?" Can you give us any information about that?
SMITHSo the technical working group that's supporting this effort has been doing that research. I actually don't have that off the top of my head. But they really are trying to sort of look far and wide.
NNAMDISam, you've got 10 seconds.
CHALTAINRight now there's almost 100 districts across the country that are experimenting with issues of socioeconomic integration. So there's a lot of stuff to look at.
NNAMDISam Chaltain, he's a writer and education activist. He's the author of the upcoming book, "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice." Evelyn Boyd Simmons is co-chair of the education committee of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 2. She's also a community leader and parent, and apparently a professional card player in her spare time. Abigail Smith is deputy mayor for education for the District of Columbia. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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