Kojo speaks with "Speak No Evil" novelist and D.C. native Uzodinma Iweala about his second novel and how his local upbringing affects his storytelling.
Kojo chats with D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith about the adoption of plans to redraw school boundaries in the District for the first time in decades.
- Abigail Smith Deputy Mayor for Education, District of Columbia
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Starting at noon Aug. 25, watch Abigail Smith talk about new school boundaries in DC.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood to the world. Later in the hour, how journalist Robert Timberg's determination to overcome the scars of Vietnam reflects the path of the nation. But first, for the first time in 40 years, the District of Columbia is set to redraw the boundary lines that dictate which neighborhood feed into which public schools. The goal being to make the pathway through school more predictable. In a district where only one fourth of the students attend their neighborhood school because of closures, consolidations and a booming lottery for out of boundary assignments.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIExisting students will be able to stay at their current schools, but Mayor Vincent Gray said last week D.C. will phase in new boundaries that will eventually place nearly one third of its public school students in new school zones. The question now is how the changes will be implemented and what happens if the next mayor, who takes office in January, wants to rethink the boundary shift. Joining us in studio is Abigail Smith. She is Deputy Mayor for Education with D.C. Public Schools in the Administration of Mayor Vincent Gray. Abby Smith, thank you for joining us.
MS. ABIGAIL SMITHAlways a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIGood to see you again. You too can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you support Mayor Gray's decision to adopt new school boundaries, starting a year from now? How will the new boundaries affect your family? 800-433-8850. Can you explain the changes in broad terms? The new boundaries will resemble those of many suburban districts in our region by assigning every residence a specific elementary school, middle school and high school. How is that different from the current system?
SMITHYeah. So, you're right that it is very different from the current system. Right now, because of our years and years of changes in terms of school closures, in terms of where students have the options to go to school, and not redrawing the boundaries during all of that time. What we have is a situation where one elementary school might feed into two different middle schools where you might live in boundary for a middle school and not live in boundary for the elementary school that feeds into that.
SMITHSo that's the nature of our current system. What this new system will do is to really rationalize that. So that there'll be a set of elementary schools that, together, their boundaries when combined will form the boundary for a middle school. And then the middle schools into the high school so that there'll be that alignment throughout the whole system.
NNAMDIYou chaired an advisory committee that developed these boundary recommendations. How does the final plan reflect the desire you heard from parents for greater predictability?
SMITHSo this process started, the public portion of the process started last October. So we've been at this for over 10 months. And what the advisory committee heard as went out to the community and had lots of extensive and large scale community conversations was that parents really wanted predictability. They wanted to also have quality close to home. They wanted to know that they had a right to a school nearby. And right now, because the system is as convoluted as I described before, that predictability and clarity just isn't there.
SMITHSo we really heard the community's commitment to building strong neighborhood schools where families could invest in their local neighborhood school. And then know that they had a clear pathway all the way from elementary to middle to high.
NNAMDIA question a lot of people are asking now is whether the District's next mayor could undo the boundary changes if he or she wanted to. Is Mayor Gray's decision to adopt the changes irreversible?
SMITHWell, I suppose nothing's irreversible, Kojo. But what we'll be doing over the course of the next few months is to develop the systems to actually provide the guidance for families as to not only what their new boundaries are, but also build that in to the lottery process that we have for out of boundary and for pre-K for charter schools and DCPS. So, in December, when that application opens, it will be based on the new boundaries so that anyone who's not phased into the current system, and many people are phased into the current system. But for people who are coming in new, they will be -- they will have a right to the new school that they've been assigned to.
NNAMDISo that by the time a new mayor takes office, the lottery will have already been concluded with the new boundaries in place. Can any other elected bodies still have a say in this decision? Could the D.C. Council or the D.C. State Board of Education get involved?
SMITHSo, the boundaries themselves -- there are a couple of processes that are required to go through, including the kind of public process that we did. We actually did much more than was required. But certainly met the requirements of the public process for changing boundaries. And then, the new boundaries have been printed in the D.C. register, which is the other piece that has been required ongoing. The other thing that we've done is to notify families in -- who live in impacted addresses. So, although their individual child might not actually be impacted, we have sent out letters to families to also begin that notification process.
SMITHSo that's the only requirements that we meet, and we've met all of those. We'll have ongoing communication with the community and families over the course of the coming months. This certainly isn't the end of our communication about the change. But we have done all of the legally required process.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Abigail Smith, Deputy Mayor for Education in the District of Columbia. She joins us on the first day of school for D.C. Public Schools. And in the wake of Mayor Vincent Gray's approval of new boundaries for schools in the District of Columbia. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. How will the new boundaries affect your family? You can send email to email@example.com. Don your headphones please, Abby, because we are about to hear from Keith in Washington, D.C. Keith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEITHGood afternoon everyone. My question, and then I'll get to how this has affected my family. Who's going to enforce the not what you know, but who you know that has been going on for a long time, and I assume that now, it's going to go on even more where kids can skip the lottery and just go to the school, because they know someone on the PTA or know a parent that's heavily involved in the school. And as a favor for that kind, being that type (unintelligible) , the kid just supercedes the lottery and anything else.
KEITHAnd what about the kids that come into D.C. schools where I notice more in Northwest, that are coming from Arlington, Fairfax County and Prince George's County?
SMITHSo, you raise questions that certainly come up a lot, Keith, from parents. One in terms of the lottery and the fairness of the lottery and access to schools. We're actually really excited that this year, for the first time, we had a centralized, common application and lottery for all DCPS out of boundary and almost all public charter schools. And one of the things that we gain by centralizing that process is to ensure that all the schools are in fact playing by the same rules. And not doing the kinds of things that you talked about.
SMITHThere actually will be an audit process, this fall that looks at what kids enrolled at each school and whether, in fact, they appropriately went through the lottery process. So schools will know that there is that accountability and parents will know that. Your question about residency is again something that we hear. And while I think that sometimes the residency allegations are a little bit overblown. I always remind people, there are reasons why a child might be dropped off at a school by someone with Maryland plates.
SMITHThere are lots of different possibilities. At the same time, we are working hard to really tighten the enforcement of residency, because as D.C. public schools, charter and DCPS continue to improve and provide more and more services, they are attractive options to people, and we want to make sure that it is the residents of Washington, D.C. who are getting those benefits.
NNAMDIYou can find a live video stream of this conversation at our website, kojoshow.org, where you might also want to ask a question or make a comment. You can still call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The new boundaries take affect a year from now, in the fall of 2015, but will be phased in. Anyone currently enrolled in a school will be able to stay there if they want to. How and when will parents indicate whether they want their kids to stay put?
SMITHSo, over the course of the year, as I mentioned, Kojo, we'll be doing ongoing communication with parents so that they know what their particular phase in rights are, both staying at a school that they're currently enrolled in. Or for schools that are changing a feeder pattern. Kids who are in those upper grades will be able to maintain their same feeder pattern if they choose. However, they might choose to go to the school that they're newly assigned to. And so over the course of the year will continue to communicate with parents so they understand what their options are. And then ask them to provide information to us about what their choosing so that we can best plan for the coming year.
NNAMDIAnd you indicated that the lottery for transfers will still exist, so if parents want to send their children to a different school, they can enter the lottery, but will it be harder to win a spot in an out of boundary school under the new system?
SMITHSo, I think, in some cases, actually, over time, it will be easier. Because part of what we're doing is to relieve some of the intense overcrowding at some of our schools by adjusting the boundaries and feeder patterns to ensure that there is a healthy pipeline of kids but not one that is going to exacerbate capacity problems. In the next couple of years, because the phase in is an -- intentionally, is going to be slow, we may not see that change overnight. But I think over -- in a steady state, parents will probably have increased access to out of boundary at a number of our high demand schools.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from John who would like to know what is the plan for predictability, in terms of ensuring high quality for all schools?
SMITHSo, this question of quality is of course at the core of all of this. And every single conversation I have with a parent or community member ends up coming back to this very foundational question of how do we ensure our kids -- our schools are high quality? Our kids are all high quality, of course. And that's most important for everybody. So, one of the things that this new boundary and feeder system allows us to do is to really support the kind of vertical alignment and planning that you would want to see from an elementary, middle and high school.
SMITHSo that those feeder patterns can actually support each other programmatically. There are also many things that are happening with DCPS that are completely outside of the boundaries issue that are working towards improving the quality of what is offered in every school across the city. But what we heard again and again and again from families is I don't care where any school is located. Every school needs to have the kinds of foundational programming and extracurricular activities and resources that every parent would want.
NNAMDISpeaking of things that will happen outside of the boundary issue, I think that's what Max in Washington would like to address. Max, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAXYes. Thank you for taking my call. I appreciate so much the work you've done, Deputy Mayor with the Oyster-Adams community, which is specifically why I'm calling. I wanted to get your take on the new recommendations that were put in earlier this summer, as it relates to the feeder patterns and the issue specifically of investing in bilingual education and the importance of consistency in a unique environment like Oyster-Adams. Because it has a direct impact on whether, for example, I will keep my kids in the Adams portion of Oyster-Adams.
MAXWhich is the middle school portion, if in fact it does not meet the criterion of the elementary quality of bilingual education and how important that is to the overall education of not only my kids, but the other kids that are starting now at Oyster in either the pre-K or first or second grade level. And will have to make those choices, because it has an impact on what people buy, where people live. Decisions they'll be making now and so on and so forth.
MAXI'll be happy to take your answer off the line. Thanks again.
NNAMDIMax, gracias. Here is Abby Smith.
SMITHSo Oyster-Adams has been a real gem in DCPS for many years, as you well know, Kojo.
NNAMDIMy kids went there.
SMITHIndeed. And a number of years ago, the Oyster community worked very hard to -- with DCPS to extend Oyster all the way through eighth grade so that the Adams building is where the middle school is housed, so that there'd be that access to bilingual education pre-K to eighth. And as in any new program, I would say that the Oyster-Adams community would agree it's taken a little while to get that all to a place where they feel really good about it.
SMITHBut what we're seeing is many more families choosing to stay through the middle grades at Oyster-Adams because they want to be able to have that kind of an experience in terms of bilingual education all the way through middle school. We also have a number of other bilingual programs within DCPS. And one of the things that this student assignment effort really seeks to do is ensure that families have the opportunity to have bilingual education.
MR. ROBERT TIMBERGBut also if, for some reason, it's not a good fit for their child, that they have another option as well so that they don't have that as their only option as a neighborhood school.
NNAMDIClose to one-third of D.C. Public School students live in areas whose boundaries are being redrawn. Once the new boundaries are completely phased in, do you think that'll affect the enrollment balance between traditional and charter public schools in D.C.?
SMITHSo what we have been seeing for the last couple of years in D.C. is increases in enrollment both in DCPS and in the public charter sector. We are -- as you mentioned, this is the first day of DCPS. We don't have all our enrollment numbers in for DCPS or for charters for this year, but we expect that that trend will continue. And I think that this rationalization of the boundaries will help support DCPS's increase in enrollment.
SMITHI think charters are also doing terrific things that are attracting kids. And so, what we really want to be able to see is growth across the board. And we've got a couple of years of that now as a track record.
NNAMDIAs I mentioned earlier, there's a live video stream of this broadcast at our website, kojoshow.org. You can ask a question or make a comment there. We're talking with Abigail Smith, deputy mayor of education in the District of Columbia. The biggest changes will at the middle school level with three new middle schools slated to open. Why are 40 percent of students being assigned to new middle school?
SMITHSo in a couple parts of our city, particularly in Wards 4 and 5, the DCPS a number of years ago had moved to a pre-K to eighth model. And while there are many families who really like the pre-K to eighth, there are other families who would like a stand-alone middle school and all that that can offer in terms of the concentration of resources. We also have been seeing, particularly in Ward 4, increases in student population such that we are now beginning to sort of burst at the seems at some of our pre-K-eighths.
SMITHAnd in order to be able to create space for all of the younger kids coming in, opening middle schools was another way to respond to that. So both of them are programmatic perspective and from a capacity perspective. It seemed like an important move to -- to -- important place to go.
NNAMDIInevitably, boundary changes are least popular in neighborhoods that are moved out of the boundaries for the most populous schools. What do you say to residents of Crestwood, for instance, who will no longer be assigned to Deal Middle School and Wilson High School?
SMITHSo there are certainly folks in Crestwood who are feeling disappointed about this decision. There are a couple of things there. One is that Crestwood, as are all the people who are assigned to new middle schools, are phased in to the current middle school that they are assigned to. So until MacFarland reopens as a middle school, the Crestwood families will continue to have a right to go to Deal.
SMITHAnd we are confident that the same kinds of exciting programming, challenging programming and community investment that we've seen at Deal, we can see another parts of the city. Deal is not the only place in the city where we can have a thriving middle school that families are really excited to go to. And we think that the families in Crestwood and others in that area of the city have a great opportunity to be a part of developing a brand new school that really meets their family's needs.
NNAMDIYou said one reason for the boundary changes is to address overcrowded and address underused schools. What's the extent of those problems? And how will the new boundaries more evenly distributes students across the District?
SMITHSo we have a number of schools in the city that are very overcrowded. Deal and Wilson are both in that category and are only getting bigger every year. So that we are on an unsustainable course. There are a number of other schools across the city that also have significant crowding issues. We also have a real imbalance of feeders into middle and high schools. So one of the things we look to do is to balance that.
SMITHSo the schools that are overcrowded have fewer feeders. And schools that have room have more feeders. But by actually stacking those in the ways I described before, we can really create an alignment and a sense of cohesion for those cohorts of kids going all the way through the system.
NNAMDIMayor Gray has directed you and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to develop a plan to implement the boundary changes. What's your timeline? What's your next step?
SMITHSo for the boundary changes themselves that the mayor approved last week, as I mentioned, we are moving forward right now with the technical side of ensuring that there's a system to be able to both find out what your school of right is and to build that into our lottery. So that's already underway. In terms of the other policy recommendations that the mayor accepted as part of the advisory committee's proposal, by the end of October, the chancellor and I will have put together an implementation that looks at some of the phase-in of the other policies.
SMITHSo we've been -- we've already laid out what the phase-in looks like for boundaries, but there are other related policies that are a part of this entire package that we want to lay-out what the timing is for actually implementing all of that, what additional resources will be necessary and who else will need to be involved.
NNAMDIFirst group to be affected by the boundary changes is students new to D.C. Public Schools, either kindergarteners or newly arrived students who entered the annual lottery in December in hopes of getting a spot outside their assigned school. What will happen to them?
SMITHSo if you are new to DCPS, so either you are brand new pre-K kid or you've moved into the city or you have been attending a charter school potentially but want to come back into a DCPS school, then your school of right will be the new school of right. And that, just like you can do now, you'll be able to walk into that school and register in 2015. So those are the families that will see the first wave of changes.
NNAMDIWhy announce the changes now, a full year ahead of the implementation?
SMITHThere's actually a requirement that was passed into law a little over a year ago that actually set out a full school year's notice in order for us to be able to implement changes. And so, we wanted to ensure that we respected that requirement. And that's why we made sure that all of this notice went out in the week prior to school.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have in this segment. Abigail Smith is deputy mayor for education in the District of Columbia. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, how journalist Robert Timberg's determination to overcome the scars of Vietnam also reflects the path of the nation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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