Border Patrol: Residents are griping about losing access to Wilson High School.
Border Patrol: Residents are griping about losing access to Wilson High School.

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It took just 20 minutes from the time Mayor Vince Gray announced his planned overhaul of the city’s public school assignment system last Thursday for the boos to start raining down on the DC Urban Moms and Dads online discussion forum. “Well, that sucks,” was the first reaction, from a Crestwood resident posting anonymously. “Just lost Deal Middle School access, which was a prime reason for buying our house 2 years ago. Wondering what this does to our property value.”

Two hours later, an email of a different sort hit the Mount Pleasant neighborhood listserv. “We did it!!!” was the subject line. “The adopted plan puts all of Mount Pleasant in bounds for Bancroft Elementary, Deal Middle School, and Wilson High School,” read the message, written by Joshua Louria, a five-year Mount Pleasant resident who’s worked with neighbors to try to persuade D.C.’s political leaders to give the neighborhood continued access to the city’s best-regarded public middle and high schools. “The adoption of this plan goes a long way toward ensuring excellent educational opportunities for years to come for our diverse Bancroft and Mount Pleasant community.”

It was inevitable that the first comprehensive redrawing of school assignment boundaries in more than 40 years would produce sharply different reactions among the perceived winners and losers of the process. The current system is riddled with problems: Convoluted feeder patterns allow a wide swath of the city to attend Deal and Wilson, both located west of Rock Creek Park, resulting in overcrowding at these schools while many in the eastern part of the city suffer from underenrollment. But any attempt to resolve this imbalance requires cutting off access to the city’s most popular schools for certain neighborhoods—where, intensifying things further, people may have bought homes with the expectation that their children would attend those schools.

And no two neighborhoods are more divided in their assessment of Gray’s redrawing of the boundaries than Mount Pleasant and adjacent Crestwood.

Until now, these neighborhoods have been geographically divided by the skinny stretch of greenery straddling Piney Branch Parkway but otherwise had much in common. They both jut westward from 16th Street NW into enclaves tucked within the east side of Rock Creek Park. They both have attractive housing stocks and increasingly affluent populations. And both have long enjoyed access to Deal and Wilson, despite their location on the other side of the park.

Last Thursday, Piney Branch became a divider of a much more important sort. Under the new system, which will take effect next school year but with a grandfathering provision that allows students to remain in their current schools, children in Mount Pleasant will retain access to Deal and Wilson. Those in Crestwood won’t. They’re slated to attend MacFarland Middle School, which closed last year due to underenrollment but is now set to reopen sometime in the next few years, and Roosevelt High School, which has barely one-quarter of Wilson’s enrollment and some of the worst test scores of any D.C. neighborhood high school.

“I feel like Crestwood essentially is negatively impacted by this outcome more than any other neighborhood in D.C.,” says Amanda Pezalla, a three-year Crestwood resident with 4- and 6-year-old children. “We lost our middle school. We lost our high school. I moved to this neighborhood because I planned to send my kids to Deal and Wilson. I’m outside my house, and the two houses that I’m looking at, my neighbors moved here because they planned to send their kids to Deal and Wilson.”

Carolyn Reynolds, who’s lived in Crestwood for slightly more than four years, is indignant upon learning that her two children at a nearby charter school won’t be grandfathered into Deal and Wilson under the new policy. “That’s outrageous,” she says. “That’s unacceptable.”

Reynolds continues, “We’re being told to send our kids to lower-performing schools, and you can’t ask us to do that. This entire initiative is predicated on the idea that the schools are of equal quality, and they’re not. Until you can offer equal or better options for parents, we need to put this initiative on hold.”

Meanwhile, just to the south, there aren’t many people clamoring for the new policy to be reversed.

“For Mount Pleasant, I think this was a very good outcome for a lot of reasons,” says Louria, who has a 5-month-old son and says access to good schools was a “huge factor” in his decision to buy a house in the neighborhood five years ago. One of those reasons is diversity at Deal and Wilson. The majority of students at Bancroft Elementary, in Mount Pleasant, are Latino, helping inject ethnic and socioeconomic balance at the schools in the mostly white section of town west of Rock Creek Park. (White students still comprise a minority at Deal and Wilson, although as those schools gain local popularity and fewer students from elsewhere in the city can attend them, that could change.)

“Bancroft parents are mostly lower-income and Latino, and it’s a great opportunity for them and great for the diversity of Deal,” agrees Mark Elton, a resident of Mount Pleasant since 2009 and a father of two young children, who says he’s “empathetic with our Crestwood neighbors.” Elton has attended meetings with representatives of the mayor and testified before the D.C. Council in favor of continued neighborhood access to Deal and Wilson.

The desire for diversity is one of the reasons Mount Pleasant emerged a winner in the process and Crestwood a loser. (Crestwood, while 50 percent black in the 2010 census, has fewer low-income and Latino residents than Mount Pleasant.) But logistics were probably a bigger factor. In order to maintain its goal of having each elementary school feed neatly into one middle and high school, the city would’ve had to move all of Powell Elementary School to Deal and Wilson if it wanted to keep Crestwood residents there. The Powell boundary includes most of Crestwood, but also parts of 16th Street Heights and Petworth where students aren’t zoned for Deal and Wilson, meaning that those schools would have had to absorb hundreds of new students at a time when the city is trying to reduce their overcrowding.

Bancroft, by contrast, already feeds into Deal, so keeping it within the Deal and Wilson orbit doesn’t add new students, even if the result is a map that makes Mount Pleasant an awkward appendage to the otherwise streamlined Deal boundary.

In other words, there’s a certain logic to the city’s strategy. But it’s not enough to satisfy Crestwood residents, who feel
their input was never taken seriously during the planning process.

“People are very disillusioned,” says Jeff Steele, who runs DC Urban Moms and Dads and lives in Crestwood. “Throughout the process, people in Crestwood have felt that we weren’t getting a fair shake.”

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says there was no way of avoiding frustration on the part of some residents in redrawing the boundaries. “If anybody thought that there was not going to be some pain associated with this, I think there were unrealistic expectations,” she says. “Part of the reason this has not been done in more than 40 years is that no one wanted to disappoint anybody.”

Gray, who had little at stake politically in tackling the thorny issue of school assignments after losing the Democratic mayoral primary in April, argues that the revised boundaries were long overdue, given that the current system predates D.C. home rule. “I think that no matter when you do this, you’re going to have some people who just simply won’t be happy with it,” he says.

Still, there could be consequences to that unhappiness. Karen Howard, president of the Crestwood Citizens Association, says there’s a “distinct possibility” that people will move out of the neighborhood in pursuit of better educational options.

“People plan many years in advance for the welfare of their children,” she says.

Henderson is unconcerned by that prospect. “Even those who decide to leave, you know, this city is getting 1,000 new residents a month,” she says. “And these residents will have babies.”

Some Crestwood residents have grumbled on DC Urban Moms and Dads about suing the city because they fear their property has lost value as a result of the schools change. That’s probably a longshot. More feasible is a full-court press to try to get the city’s future mayor—likely to be either Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser, who represents Crestwood and Ward 4 on the D.C. Council, or independent candidate and At-Large Councilmember David Catania—to alter the policy.

There are hurdles to doing so, given that the plan isn’t subject to Council approval and the lottery for next school year will open in December, before the new mayor takes office. But Crestwood residents haven’t given up hope. This week, both Bowser and Catania released statements announcing their opposition to the plan, although neither proposed an alternative or outlined a way to amend or delay Gray’s changes.

“We’re not done with this,” says Howard. “This is the expected outcome for a lame-duck mayor. But it’s not over.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery