September 22, 2023



Bowser’s vow of better middle schools falls short in poorest D.C. wards

Bowser’s vow of better middle schools falls short in poorest D.C. wards
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When Muriel E. Bowser (D) first ran for mayor in 2014, she vowed to be the “education mayor.” She would transform the city’s lowest-performing schools and tackle a problem that has long vexed District leaders: middle schools.

But seven years later, as she runs for a third term, her promises are still unfulfilled in the city’s poorest wards. While she has poured more money into these schools, families continue to abandon the system after elementary school, choosing charter schools and campuses in wealthier areas over their assigned neighborhood schools.

The middle schools serving the most low-income populations are struggling, and the challenges are most acute at the five middle schools in Wards 7 and 8, according to an analysis of city data and interviews with more than 20 parents and education leaders. Despite funding schools at unprecedented levels, the poor reputations of the five campuses in these wards persist — and standardized test scores show academic outcomes are still lagging far behind city averages.

Bowser says that the schools are better than when she first took office, citing the rise in elementary students that has started to spill over to the upper grades, with more than 3,000 additional public and charter middle school students enrolling during her tenure.

The neighborhood middle schools in Wards 7 and 8 — the overwhelmingly African American areas with the highest concentrations of poverty — are still under-enrolled, making them so expensive and inefficient to operate that they struggle to fund the electives and courses that typify the American middle school experience.

In the city’s high-stakes competition for enrollment, the neighborhood campuses in these wards are lacking.

“One of the struggles I have for picking a school in my community, particularly middle school, is the lack of resources,” said Mandla Deskins, a father of three in Ward 7 who sends his children to schools in different neighborhoods. “I have to be honest with myself and ask, is this the best place for my children to get an education?”

During Bowser’s first mayoral campaign, she pledged an “Alice Deal for All” in a reference to the District’s top-performing and most popular middle school, Alice Deal, which is over capacity at 1,400 students and is located in one of the most wealthy and White neighborhoods. Her campaign promised to offer the same opportunities available to Deal students to every Washingtonian.

“The number of kids there allows for the ability for them to have all these things,” Bowser said in an interview this month.

The mayor has revived some struggling middle schools in parts of the city. In fast-gentrifying and racially diverse Ward 4 — including Petworth, Crestwood, Brightwood and Takoma — she converted the elementary and middle school campuses that were combined in the mid-2000s back into stand-alone middle schools. Though they are a third of the size of Alice Deal, one has hit its enrollment capacity and the other is projected to reach it in the coming years.

But not much has changed at the five middle schools in Wards 7 and 8. Two of them have seen slight enrollment upticks. Overall, fewer students are now enrolled in them than when Bowser took office — a tumble only worsened by the pandemic. A smaller percentage of students who are assigned to them has opted to attend.

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And while the outcomes on the English portion of standardized exams have improved, math scores haven’t budged, with scores on both portions dramatically lower than Deal. At Kelly Miller — which performs slightly higher on standardized tests than the other four middle schools in Wards 7 and 8 — around 20 percent of students met standards in English and 6 percent did in math, according to the 2019 results on national standardized exams. At Deal, 80 percent met expectations in English and 60 percent did in Math.

None of the middle schools have anything like the offerings at Alice Deal, where students can study Spanish, French and Chinese. The five middle schools east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8 — none of which currently has an enrollment above 450 students — offer just Spanish. Some have just a part-time Spanish teacher, and only one has both an art and music teacher. Kramer Middle School, expected to educate 289 students next academic year, is not slated to have either, though the school will still offer art and music electives using existing staff.

Across the city, middle schools are underenrolled. And further complicating their abilities to grow, new charter and traditional public schools with middle school grades have opened during Bowser’s tenure, outpacing the growth in the number of students. Schools are funded based on their enrollment. Smaller schools are more expensive to operate — every school needs a principal, a building and basic academic teachers, no matter their size — and many of the existing middle schools are underenrolled.

The four neighborhood middle school buildings in Ward 8 are at less than 50 percent capacity, according to city data.

“The goal is to make sure that every school, parents feel confident in sending their children to them. That that is a good choice for them,” Bowser said. “But we know that they have a lot of choices.”

The District dissolved its elected school board more than a decade ago, giving complete control of schools to the mayor. So Bowser is politically liable for them — and she wields more power to shape her city’s schools than most mayors across the country.

Under her leadership, the system has increased its retention rate from elementary to middle school by more than five percentage points since 2015.

Still, families opt out in droves. Around 30 percent of elementary students in the traditional public school system exit before middle school. In contrast, the charter sector grows after elementary school; slightly more students attend charter middle schools than traditional public ones. In an interview, Bowser and D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said they have invested in Ward 7 and 8 schools — even if enrollment does not reflect that.

Every middle school has been required to offer high school-level math courses since 2016. Some of the middle schools now offer computer science electives. In 2019, the city launched the connected school programs, which brought community groups into 11 schools, including the five middle schools in Wards 7 and 8, providing them with community gardens, mentorship programs, tutoring and more.

“We’ve been making huge progress across the middle grades,” Bowser said.

One reason investing money and creating good programs didn’t yield obvious success stories is because the District’s education landscape is exceedingly complex.

More than 40 percent of the 95,000 public school students attend a publicly funded but independently operated charter school, making D.C. one of the biggest charter sectors in the country. Every family is guaranteed a slot only at their neighborhood school, but a lottery system gives families a shot at attending any public charter or traditional public school — even if it is not in their neighborhood.

In Ward 3, the city’s most wealthy and White ward — where Alice Deal is located — there are no charter schools and a vast majority of students attend their assigned neighborhood school.

By contrast, the poorest wards have dozens of charter campuses to choose from, and most students do not attend their neighborhood school. Only 20 percent of those assigned to Sousa Middle in Ward 8, for instance, enrolled in the last academic year. At Deal, 77 percent of students living in its boundaries enrolled.

This school choice framework has been hailed as a model across the country, and families sit on long waiting lists hoping for seats at top-performing language immersion, college preparatory and Montessori schools.

But according to interviews with city leaders and education activists, the model has also meant that officials can respond to parent demands for better schools by opening new ones without fixing existing campuses.

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That has created dozens of small specialty schools and relatively few larger ones like Deal. And, while the school lottery system is intended to give everyone an equal shot at a top-performing school, students who are considered at-risk for academic failure based on their family’s income levels are concentrated in higher numbers in neighborhood schools. White families have also used the lottery to cluster in relatively few campuses, creating schools that are often more segregated than the neighborhoods they serve.

Bowser said in an interview that she is a proponent of good schools — no matter whether they are charters or traditional public schools. But she does not believe new charter schools should open if they are replicating offerings that the system already has.

Too many schools, both Bowser and her critics agree, can stretch public dollars too far. Those with high at-risk populations often receive more than $20,000 in local funds per student from the city, but the D.C. Council often needs to allocate extra funds to schools with dwindling enrollment so they can meeting staffing needs.

“Once you say we can have unlimited number of schools, you are saying we can pour unlimited dollars into schools,” said Eboni-Rose Thompson, Ward 7 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. “And the truth is that we are not pouring unlimited dollars into schools. Every year you have schools that say their needs are not being met.”

More than half of students living in Ward 8, around 54 percent of students, travel outside the ward for middle school, up from 50 percent in 2014, according to city data. Consider Kramer Middle, which serves students in Anacostia and has an at-risk population of 88 percent, compared with around 47 percent citywide. According to city data, 1,343 local children could enroll in the last academic year. Just 11 percent did.

The other nearly 1,200 were scattered across 74 traditional public middle schools in the city. More than 215 of them attended a middle school run by KIPP DC, the largest charter network in the city. And 14 traveled more than an hour west each day, traversing the city to attend Deal.

“It’s a historic trend,” Bowser said. “It happens all across the city that people want to go to the west.”

The Brewer family in Ward 8, however, has opted to attend the neighborhood school.

Rochell Brewer’s daughter once attended Johnson Middle and her granddaughter is a Johnson eighth-grader. She said she has seen some improvements over the years. Her granddaughter is in a rigorous algebra class, and there’s an archery club.

But she said Johnson needs more counselors to address the significant mental health needs of the student body, and entire portions of the school building cannot be used because they are in desperate need of renovation.

Bowser has spent billions of dollars renovating school buildings, and 10 of the school system’s 13 middle schools have been fully modernized. The three that haven’t received full modernizations, including Johnson, are all in Ward 8.

“It’s gotten a little better since my daughter was there,” Brewer said. “But the infrastructure is still not good.”

They believe more students should attend their neighborhood schools. But what happens when it’s their child?

Opting out for generations

LaToya Mathews’s experience illustrates the city’s challenges. Mathews, a native Washingtonian, grew up in Ward 8 in the 1990s. Her neighborhood schools — Hart Middle and Ballou High School — had reputations as places where little learning occurred, so her family sent her to schools on Capitol Hill.

Now her four children are zoned for the same neighborhood schools, and she will not consider enrolling them. She doesn’t have to. Mathews used vouchers to send her two oldest — now high-schoolers — to small, private middle schools in Southeast Washington. One of her fourth-grade twins attends the neighborhood elementary school. She pulled the other twin out of the elementary school this year to attend an all-boys charter middle school, which begins in fourth grade.

All four of her children attend different schools across the city.

“If you know the neighborhood, you know these schools are historically not good, that’s your perception and that’s hard to change,” Mathews said. “Hart is not on my radar and it’s not promoted enough for me to know the programs and make an informed decision.”

In all, the more than 16,000 public middle school students in the nation’s capital have 76 options. That’s an average of about 210 students per middle school. There were around 70 schools for 13,000 students when Bowser took office — and that number has increased even as Bowser reorganized 10 combined middle and elementary schools and moved the middle grades to two stand-alone middle schools.

By comparison, the average middle school size in neighboring Montgomery County is around 900. In Fairfax, it’s around 2,000 students per middle school.

“Can you have good middle schools if you have 200 students in them?” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a D.C.-based nonprofit focused on modernizing the nation’s school facilities. “It’s a really deficient system.”

Critics like Filardo have charged Bowser with failing to create the right number of schools in the city for projected enrollment growth. Instead, they say, Bowser has allowed the charter school sector to grow with seemingly few checks and has also opened new citywide high schools while neighborhood campuses are still struggling to maintain enrollment.

Unlike other jurisdictions, D.C. does not have a cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Both the D.C. Council — which provides oversight of the city schools — and the mayor have said that charters are independent and have publicly done little to shape their growth.

“DCPS is not competing with the charters, and the charters are eating up their enrollment,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

While charter schools are independent, the mayor can have a role in shaping the sector and the Bowser administration has been considered charter-friendly. Bowser appoints the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which authorizes which charter schools can open and which must close for low-performance. She said she speaks with all her appointees about the need to approve only charters that address an unmet need in the city.

“Parents are agnostic to sectors,” Bowser said. “They want to have convenient, robust options for their children that match what their children need.”

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When 11 applicants wanted to open charter schools in 2019 — most of them middle and high campuses, schools with the most empty seats — the Bowser administration did something unusual. Her deputy mayor wrote a letter to the charter board ahead of the vote expressing concern about adding campuses when the city still had ample empty seats.

The board still approved five schools.

“It means little to us and even less to many D.C. families to hear that there are thousands of seats in many schools that boast poor academic results,” Rick Cruz, president of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said at the time.

Bowser said the charter board has shown more “restraint” in the last two years. (The charter board did not accept charter applications last year.) She stopped short of saying that there are too many middle schools but acknowledged that the current landscape fails to maximize public dollars. The mayor said that, in theory, a school could be too small to work but none of the neighborhood middle schools has hit that threshold yet.

“We do not want to be in a situation where our public education dollars are being cannibalized, there’s some evidence of that,” Bowser said. “I am a proponent of making sure that every school has a sufficient student body to support robust offerings.”

Still, even beyond enrollment, there are signs the city is struggling to provide middle schools in low-income neighborhoods with the same academic opportunities as other campuses.

In 2019, city leaders clashed over whether to move Banneker — a selective and top-performing application public high school that has a predominantly Black student body — to a bigger site that would allow it to expand its enrollment. Bowser and some council members argued that the bigger school would provide more low-income students the benefits of Banneker’s rigorous programming. On the other side, some families and council members wanted to use the site to create a stand-alone middle school in the Shaw neighborhood, hoping to improve the feeder pattern in a part of town that had seen a boom in elementary school students.

Banneker and Shaw: Was the fight really about gentrification?

The council narrowly voted to move Banneker to Shaw and expand it by 300 students.

But Banneker’s current freshman class of 145 students does not have a single student who attended a neighborhood middle school in Wards 7 or 8, according to data obtained through a public records request. (The class has 41 students from those wards, but they attended other middle schools.)

And of the freshman class, just over 50 percent attended a traditional public middle school, with the remainder graduating from a private or charter middle school.

It’s not just Banneker. The freshman class at School Without Walls — another selective high school — also has zero students who attended one of the five middle schools in Wards 7 and 8. Walls had been the only program to require an admissions test, but Ferebee eliminated the exam during the pandemic to see if it would help diversify the school.

D.C. eliminated the admissions test during the pandemic at its most selective high school. It didn’t help diversify the school.

Still, Ferebee and Bowser say neighborhood middle schools are preparing students to succeed in schools like Banneker and Walls — the city just needs to ensure these students apply.

“It says less about the kids than it does all about all of the adults making sure they are [exposing] children to the opportunities available to them,” Bowser said.

And now, it’s school enrollment season in the District, and schools across the city are recruiting students. Kortni Stafford, the principal at Kelly Miller Middle — the only neighborhood middle school in all of Ward 7 — is visiting the fifth-grade classes at each of the eight elementary schools that feed into Miller, hoping to convince students to enroll.

The school had grown its enrollment in recent years, but it experienced a big dip during the pandemic. The neighborhood around Kelly Miller was hit hard by the virus. Parents were hesitant to return, so Stafford said that some of her students left Kelly Miller to attend charter schools that offered virtual options.

The principal thinks they’ll return and is focusing on the achievement in her school, telling elementary schools about them with a weekly newsletter to parents and ensuring current parents know about the successes so they can tell their neighbors.

“It’s always within our power to change the narratives of our schools,” Stafford said.

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