Need a D.C. school-district map? Wear a disguise. Take a taxi to farm with two pumpkins. Tell them Ivan sent you.
When Mark Eckenwiler and his wife decided to move to the District in the fall of 1996, they had already picked out a school for their two sons: Peabody Elementary, which houses a premier early-childhood program on Capitol Hill. While his family waited back in Chicago, Eckenwiler came to Washington a few months early to scout out homes near the school. Before doing so, though, he needed to know exactly which houses fell inside the school’s boundaries.
No problem, Eckenwiler thought. He’d just make a quick call to the office of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). Surely, they’d have a city map that outlined the boundaries.
The 38-year-old attorney would have had better luck asking the KGB to supply a guidebook to secret Soviet missile bases. When Eckenwiler made his first call to the school system, the person who answered the phone asked for his address. No, no, no, explained Eckenwiler. He didn’t have an address—that’s why he was calling. He needed a map so he could find a house in the right district.
Eckenwiler was directed to another office. Then another. But as he bounced from office to office, D.C.’s bureaucracy remained stoically silent: The only way to determine the corresponding school, they maintained, was to plug a specific address into “the system,” and it would spit out the appropriate school name.
“I never did get a map,” recalls Eckenwiler. “I got some vague contours of what the boundaries were, but no map.”
Eckenwiler’s not the only D.C. parent to have searched for a school-boundaries map and been stymied by the same mysterious “system.” Frustrated map-seekers all get the same story from DCPS: The District has no map of school boundaries to give out, but instead relies on a system that can only match addresses with schools. “I’ve never seen it,” says DCPS spokesperson Devonya Smith about the elusive map. “I went hunting high and low for a physical piece of paper, and I didn’t find one….I don’t think there is a physical map. It’s in the server system. I don’t think it’s printed.”
In the end, Eckenwiler simply rented a house and checked the address with “the system.” He’s since bought a Capitol Hill home and managed to stay within the Peabody boundaries. Years later, though, he’s still unnerved by the secrecy. “People acted as if it was some outlandish idea that you’d want an actual map, like it was a state secret,” says Eckenwiler. “I can get maps of my [patrol service areas], my wards, my [advisory neighborhood commissions]…but God forbid I should know what the actual school boundaries are.”
Like any secretive government bureaucracy worth its jackboots, DCPS has now bred an underground. Shaw resident Nick Keenan began his path to being a samizdat cartographer a few weeks ago, with a simple phone call to the school system’s offices.
At the time, Keenan’s neighbors and school officials were embroiled in controversy about the Garrison Elementary School playground, which the Metropolitan Baptist Church had been using as its own private parking lot. Neighbors were lining up on all sides of the debate, so Keenan thought he’d figure out just which houses came within the school boundaries and were most affected by the parking dispute.
Like Eckenwiler, Keenan made his first call to the DCPS office. The staffer there told him to call the school. “Basically, I was bounced about six or seven places,” says Keenan. “Every place I went the answer was the same: What was the address?”
But in the dissident tradition of Andrei Sakharov, Keenan decided to outsmart “the system.” He started to list off a number of addresses to see if he could piece together the boundary line on his own. But the authorities soon figured him out. “After the second one, they said the computer was down,” says Keenan.
Keenan has since mailed in a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking a map or even just a listing of school boundaries. And he thinks there’s something a little sinister about the missing map. Having “secret boundaries,” as he calls them, allows DCPS officials to change them without alerting parents. The secrecy also gives the school district leverage over parents. If a parent or child starts to cause trouble, reasons Keenan, officials could claim that the child does not live within the boundaries of the school and have him or her transferred to some academic Siberia. “That’s something that’s completely nonrebuttable by parents, because they can’t find out what the boundaries are,” says Keenan.
School officials say there is no such conspiracy afoot. They add that they’re in the process of implementing a new “system”—an unintentionally ominous promise.
Schools currently rely on something called the Student Information System to provide information on school boundaries, says Ulysses Keyes, director of information services for DCPS. But Keyes says DCPS is working on a new $3.5 million setup that will include updated information on school boundaries. The new system will also be accessible to parents and others online. “The school system is in the process of determining new boundaries,” says Keyes. “After that is done, that will be part of our job, to literally draw in and produce the kind of maps you’re talking about now.”
Keenan—who isn’t quite ready to fire up the mimeograph machine and secure a safe house—is nonetheless not holding his breath. “If they do it the way they do it now, that’s not a really meaningful release of information,” says Keenan. But if the system includes online access to all boundary information, including maps, Keenan’s all for it. “I think that would be responsible,” he says. But he’ll wait for the wall to come down before he starts celebrating. CP