Efforts to fight overcrowding in Ward 3 schools inch forward

Overcrowding at Murch Elementary School prompted plans for a modernization and expansion. (Brian Kapur/The Current/February 2016)

Ward 3 parents and city officials now largely agree that overcrowding in the area’s public schools will only grow more acute over time. Though solutions have remained elusive so far, efforts are ramping up to find them, including through a new working group.

Overcrowding is, in some ways, a good problem to have for D.C. Public Schools, which faces lackluster achievement records and outdated facilities in many locations. But schools in affluent Ward 3 are seen as among the most desirable in a city that faces widening income and opportunity gaps.

By this fall, projected enrollment will exceed building capacity in all of the ward’s public elementary, middle and high schools except for Hearst Elementary, which will be overfilled by fall 2020 at the latest. Class sizes have ballooned, and parents report that some Ward 3 schools have resorted to using stairwells as classroom space and closets as offices.

City officials announced moves earlier this year to address these problems, including more outreach about improvements in the quality of schools elsewhere in the city. Since then, D.C. Public Schools has convened a community working group — comprised of one administrator and one parent from each Ward 3 school as well as non-Ward 3 schools in the Wilson High feeder pattern — that will meet monthly to address the overcrowding issues.

The group has met just once so far, focusing on discrepancies in enrollment statistics and capacity projections that, parents argue, result in the city underestimating the budgetary needs of affected schools. Future sessions will seek to identify specific solutions.

“The first piece that the group will have to deal with is just getting a better sense of what the true capacity of these schools actually are,” said Brian Doyle, a working group member with two children at Hearst.

That effort might be easier going forward thanks to Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, who included $550,000 in the city’s fiscal year 2018 budget that will allow the D.C. auditor to study the city’s process for making enrollment projections.

Meanwhile, the overcrowding issue got attention on June 5 when Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles joined a meeting of the existing Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network to discuss the city’s response to the long-running concerns.

“It seems like it hasn’t been fast enough by a long shot. But we’re really mobilized now,” Niles said. “I can’t quite speak to everything that’s happened in the past. We are looking at this with priority, with certainty. We’re committed to figuring this out. And we know that we have to figure it out.”

Although Niles made no specific promises at the meeting, she said the school system’s new master facilities plan, planned for release next spring, will provide more concrete guidance on these issues.

The city does appear to have made some plans already. During a May 19 interview on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” Mayor Muriel Bowser mentioned a goal to reduce the student population at Wilson High in Tenleytown by 40 students total over the next few years.

But parents in the community have reacted with surprise and alarm to this news, coming on the heels of budget cuts that have cost the high school 30 staff members over the last few years. Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 3’s State Board of Education member, said the city isn’t keeping community members abreast of plans for Wilson, which is projected to be 45 students over capacity this fall despite a $105 million renovation and expansion that opened in 2011.

“Nobody at Wilson was aware that there’s a plan to shrink it,” Wattenberg said at the June 5 meeting. “That is not a great job on community engagement.”

D.C. Public Schools declined to comment on specific school budgets.

But the broader issue of where to situate the influx of students projected for Ward 3 schools hasn’t escaped the city’s attention. At the education network meeting, Niles acknowledged that officials need to explore a range of ideas, including commissioning existing buildings as public school space or even constructing new schools.

But she said it would be irresponsible to promise action on any of those solutions at this point. “There’s still more data that I need to be able to have the city leaders look at for us to say that we’re definitely building new schools,” Niles said.

Parents have identified the old Hardy School in Foxhall, the vacant Georgetown Day School campus in the Palisades, and parts of the University of the District of Columbia in Van Ness as possible sites for public school space. The university is currently weighing that idea, spokesperson John Gordon told The Current.

Lafayette Elementary School was temporarily housed in a network of trailers. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2016)

In an interview, Council member Cheh floated the possibility of using the trailer network constructed for the Lafayette Elementary modernization — later re-used during Murch’s renovation and installed on the university’s campus — as permanent school space.

At the former Hardy, located at 1550 Foxhall Road NW and currently leased to the Lab School for a special needs program, Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to grant Lab a long-term lease. Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, chair of the Committee on Business and Economic Development, now plans to hold a public hearing on the matter later this year, spokesperson Nolan Treadway said.

A more urgent matter is the fiscal year 2018 budget allocation for D.C. Public Schools. The D.C. Council voted unanimously last week to pass a funding package that includes a 3 percent increase in the per-pupil allocation for the schools. Cheh is among those hoping the funds will be applied to schools that recently endured budget cuts, including Wilson.

Though the council can make recommendations for the funds, D.C. Public Schools gets the final say. “DCPS will work closely with the Mayor’s office to allocate resources and ensure that every school has what it needs to effectively operate and provide an excellent and equitable learning experience for every student,” school system spokesperson Janae Hinson wrote in an email.

But Cheh thinks community members will need to keep pressure on the school system to keep its word. She’s disillusioned after promises from previous administrations failed to materialize, though she said she’s glad to see the conversations bubble up about overcrowding and funding.

“There are a lot of balls in the air here, and I don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out. At least we’re talking about it,” Cheh said. “Before, as far as I was concerned, DCPS people were just putting their hands over their ears and not even listening to us.”