Parents examine the city's school proposals at Coolidge High School.
Parents examine the city's school proposals at Coolidge High School.

Anxious public-school parents packed the gymnasium at Coolidge High School last night to express their concerns over the city’s proposals for realigning school boundaries and changing the student assignment process.

The parents at this meeting—-the third public gathering after the city released its proposals over the weekend—-were largely from upper Northwest, the area whose schools have the best reputation, and where residents therefore feel they have the most to lose. Two of the three proposals would open high schools to a citywide lottery and provide multiple middle-school options for most households, creating a degree of uncertainty for families who thought they were destined for the city’s most successful and sought-after neighborhood schools, Alice Deal Middle School and Wilson High School in Tenleytown.

“The citywide lottery is just a ridiculous, horrible idea,” said Mia Dell, a parent of three children at Lafayette Elementary School, which feeds into Deal and Wilson, to her tablemates as the meeting broke into group discussions.

“The whole neighborhood school idea seems central to me,” said Stoddert Elementary School parent Julie Schneider, who, like others at the meeting, worried about losing the right to attend a nearby school.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who led the committee that drafted the proposals, anticipated the distress. “I know there are a lot of people in the room who are feeling anxious,” she said in opening the meeting. Smith reassured parents that it was untrue that she already had a set plan ironed out and that the exercise of floating the three proposals was “just a charade,” as some people suggested. (Smith asked the crowd how many people felt this way; a few hands went up.)

The three plans, she said, are just “initial proposals” that are likely to change. “Our expectation is that we probably will not end up with Policy Example A, B, or C,” she said. “We’ll probably end up with D, E, F, X, Y, or Z.”

Still, some community members felt that two of the so-called policy examples were designed to be unpalatable, so as to make the third, more conservative one appear like the consensus position.

“They’ve put a lot of things on the table,” said Powell Elementary School parent Andy Rowe, “and only some of them seem realistic.”

Rowe is among the highly engaged parents who have helped turn Powell from a mediocre, underenrolled school into a successful one that’s surpassed its capacity amid high demand. Now, with the redrawn boundaries proposed by Smith’s team, Rowe would no longer be in-boundary for Powell.

“We’re going to have another child, and it’s my hope she’ll go to Powell, too,” Rowe said.

Jeff Steele, a resident of nearby Crestwood who runs the popular Web forum DC Urban Moms and Dads, is likewise frustrated that his neighborhood would lose the right to go to Powell under the proposed changes. He acknowledges that Crestwood parents have historically found ways of dodging Powell and sending their kids elsewhere, but says that in the past couple of years, a few neighborhood parents have started opting for Powell and trying to recruit their friends and neighbors.

“It’s unfortunate that just as Crestwood was starting to make a commitment to Powell, we’re getting the rug pulled out from under us,” Steele said.

Some Crestwood parents feel uniquely slighted by the city’s proposals. Not only would a portion of the neighborhood lose the right to attend Powell, but the entire neighborhood would be zoned out of attending Deal and Wilson under the redrawn boundaries—-a much bigger concern for many neighbors.

Specific school assignments aside, some attendees of the meeting had concerns about the proposed changes on transportation and even environmental grounds. Jeff, a Wakefield resident who declined to give his last name, says he bought a home in upper Northwest with the intention of sending his children to nearby Murch Elementary School. With some of the proposals, he’d have to bring them to much farther locations—-and under a citywide high-school lottery, which he called “madness,” he could be required to bring them to the other side of town. If half the families in the city need to do that, he said, it would worsen not only traffic, but also pollution.

Still, at least one parent urged her compatriots not to think small in weighing in on the first comprehensive review of school boundaries since D.C. obtained home rule in 1973. “I would hope that we wouldn’t get trapped by fear of change,” Michelle, who declined to provide her last name and whose son will attend Powell next year, told the parents at her table.

Ultimately, Smith won’t have the final say on these changes. She’s hoping to release the administration’s final plan in September, two months before a new mayor—-presumably either Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser or independent challenger David Catania—is elected. Neither Bowser nor Catania has committed to supporting the current administration’s proposal.

“I would hope,” Smith said, “that any new mayor coming into that seat would respect the process.”

Photo by Aaron Wiener