Enrollment pressures still challenge Ward 3 schools

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Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh toured Wilson High on Aug. 7 as part of her annual school readiness tour. (Grace Bird/The Current/August 2017)

When Kimberly Martin became principal of Wilson High three years ago, she frequently took phone calls from lottery hopefuls across the city, fielding questions about their prospects for landing a place at the sought-after school.

Martin no longer takes those calls herself, delegating to staff the task of explaining the absence of open seats through the lottery.

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“I wish I could have everyone, but I just can’t,” she told The Current on Monday during Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh’s annual school readiness tour, which evaluates schools each summer across her ward.

Wilson High, located at 3950 Chesapeake St. NW, is bursting at the seams. Martin expects 1,900 students to walk through the doors next week, although the campus was built for 1,600. In recent years, Wilson’s population has steadily grown from the 1,633 students enrolled in 2011. Meanwhile, the school has endured three consecutive years of budget cuts and more than 30 layoffs. Now, with one guidance counselor per grade, one nurse for the entire school and a chaotic lunch period, Wilson can no longer accept out-of-boundary students through the citywide lottery.

Wilson High School is located at 3950 Chesapeake St. NW in Tenleytown. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2016)

To Martin, accepting students from around D.C. is crucial to maintaining Wilson’s diversity. In a 2015-16 enrollment audit, 39 percent of students were African-American, 22 percent were Hispanic and 27 percent were white. The racial composition of many of Wilson’s in-boundary neighborhoods is overwhelmingly Caucasian.

Now, the school’s out-of-boundary population is limited to students who won a slot at a school that feeds into Wilson and to siblings of current students — which Martin fears may compromise the school’s diversity.

Next on Martin’s agenda is lunchtime: Wilson has one break period when almost every corner of the school is available for students to roam, and the campus teems with 1,800 to 1,900 adolescents. To alleviate congestion, Martin is considering allowing younger grades to leave campus at lunchtime, as older students already do.

Many Wilson parents are also concerned. In an email to The Current, Amy Hall wrote that “the school isn’t built for the volume — teachers and staff try to police, but it gets chaotic — they’re practically full grown adult bodies who are still mostly kids, things can get rowdy.”

However, Hall is clear: Limiting out-of-boundary students is not the answer.

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh toured Hardy Middle on Aug. 8 as part of her annual school readiness tour. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

Cheh stopped at Wilson on Monday afternoon as part of her readiness tour. Eleven years ago, when Cheh began visiting every public school in her ward as a newly elected legislator, she’d uncover scores of startling deficiencies. These days, D.C. public schools have improved, and Cheh’s tours are sometimes more ceremonial than a dire necessity. But this year, with Wilson’s budget cuts and amid overcrowding concerns throughout Ward 3 schools, Cheh’s visit held a particular weight.

As Cheh walked through Wilson, she noticed many defects six years after the completion of extensive renovations at the Tenleytown school: Ceiling leaks, faded walls, missing railings and broken emergency call buttons. In some cases, problems had lingered for two or three years.

But it’s not all bad news for Wilson. Despite dealing with adversities, the school’s results are relatively strong, with many graduates going on to attend some of the country’s prestigious colleges and universities. Rising senior Derek Stevens, who grew up in Northeast and recently moved to Tenleytown, spoke of Wilson in glowing terms.

“I love it. The teachers care about you,” Stevens said in an interview. He intends to leave D.C. for college next year, hopefully with a football scholarship.

However, Stevens agreed that lunchtimes at Wilson are raucous. He rarely joins the endless cafeteria line. “No way. It gets crazy,” he said.

Overcrowding isn’t unique to Wilson. Most schools in Ward 3 are at or over capacity and converting extra-curricular spaces to classrooms and installing playground trailers are short-term solutions.

The city is looking into the situation.

“D.C. Public Schools has taken important steps to evaluate and address rising enrollment in Ward 3 schools,” spokesperson Janae Hinson wrote in an email. “Starting in the fall, DCPS leadership will use all feedback gathered to identify next steps and possible solutions to pursue.”

At some schools there are few options left. Janney Elementary School at 4130 Albemarle St. NW, for example, has doubled in capacity over the past decade, and yet this year 730 students have enrolled — 80 more than it was built for. To accommodate five classes per grade, Janney recently eliminated one of its three pre-K classes.

According to Janney’s director of strategy and logistics, Ann Beumel, when the school was renovated and expanded, administrators hoped it would welcome a larger out-of-boundary population. However, the renovations attracted so many nearby families that students from elsewhere in the city were largely squeezed out.

“Right now, there’s not as much diversity,” Beumel said. According to a 2015-16 audit, three-quarters of Janney’s students are white, and 93 percent are in-boundary.  

While enrollment at Janney has somewhat stabilized, the neighborhood has a number of developments underway, the city continues to swell — and land is at a premium. “I mean, I don’t know where you would build,” Beumel said.

Key Elementary School, located at 5001 Dana Place NW, uses trailers to handle its high enrollment. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

About six years ago, Key Elementary at 5001 Dana Place NW installed two trailers on the lawn for its fifth-graders. While in previous years, each trailer accommodated between 18 and 20 children, this year, the fifth-grade classes are expected to have 23 students each.

“And 20 would’ve been big,” principal David Landeryou told Cheh at her inspection last week. “When you walk in, you can just feel it’s a lot smaller,” Landeryou said of the trailers.

Cheh was similarly dismayed by the prospect of overcrowded trailers.

“Well, they’ll manage, but it’s not a sustainable situation,” Cheh told Landeryou. Given that Key Elementary’s two incoming kindergarten classes have 27 students apiece, Landeryou said, it’s likely that enrollment will continue to swell.

To address overcrowding issues, Cheh said she plans to send a letter to Bowser detailing the situation facing Ward 3 public schools, and requesting an additional $1 million for Wilson. “Whether it eventuates into anything real, I don’t know,” Cheh said.

After his February appointment, Wilson convened a community working group to address issues faced by Ward 3 public schools. The group plans to give recommendations to the city in November for consideration in the 2019 fiscal year budget, according to member Brian Doyle, co-chair of the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network.

“The situation is not sustainable,” Doyle said in an interview. “We’re going to have to get creative.”