Alice Deal Middle Schoolin Northwest Washington is bursting at the seams, and with good reason.
For foreign language, students can choose French, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. The school offers football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, track, baseball, softball, volleyball and fencing. The list of after-school clubs includes international cooking, African drumming, gardening, Scrabble and Gay-Straight Alliance. This fall, the school has 1,014 students in a building designed for 980.
At Brookland Educational Campus at Bunker Hill, serving preschool to eighth grade in Northeast’s Ward 5, the menu of offerings for middle-grade students is quite different. There is one part-time Spanish teacher. Students are offered basketball, track, cheerleading and chorus. And there are parents who say the situation in their community is untenable.
“I spent five years driving across town . . . so my kids could have a decent education,” said Raenelle Zapata, who sent her children to Deal, Hardy Middle and Eaton Elementary, all in Northwest. “There are parents who don’t have the opportunity to do that. . . . We’re going to have to clean this up.”
Middle schools are the latest hot spot in D.C. public education. With preschool and elementary enrollment ticking up for the first time in decades, parents and policymakers are scrutinizing the lack of attractive middle-grade options with increasing urgency.
Everyone agrees that far too many poorly prepared students are entering D.C. high schools. An Education Week analysis has found that more than half of the city’s public students fail to graduate from high school on time. Many drop out in the ninth grade.
Without dramatic improvement in middle school quality, the long-term prospects for reform are bleak.
“Every child entering the sixth grade should have access to the same quality of education,” said D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who will convene the second of two hearings on middle schools Tuesday. “Their science lab should look the same, the same computer lab, offerings of foreign language. Clearly that’s not happening.” Brown, a Ward 7 resident with a son at Eaton and a daughter at Deal — seats in cross-town schools he secured through the annual out-of-boundary lottery — said at a recent hearing that on a tour of a PS-8 school in Northeast, he told the principal that he would never send his children there.
“And the principal said, ‘I agree with you,’ ” Brown said, declining to name the principal.
Middle schools pose Chancellor Kaya Henderson with sticky political and educational questions in virtually every quadrant of the city. In Georgetown, Hardy Middle has a heavy out-of-boundary enrollment and has been roiled by recent leadership changes. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has called for a new middle school for her Northwest constituents.
On Capitol Hill, where hundreds of new students are moving through revitalized elementary schools that now have waiting lists, parents say the dearth of traditional middle school options imperils that rebirth.
The best middle school in the neighborhood, Stuart-Hobson, is aging and packed. Two others close by, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, have plenty of room but moribund academic records that make them unattractive.
“Let me be very frank with you. My husband and I are not willing to stay in the District if we don’t see significant improvement in our middle school options,” Ana Maria Linares, a parent at Maury Elementary, told the council this month.
Henderson, who is scheduled to appear before the council Tuesday, said school systems across the nation have historically struggled with middle schools, when grades and discipline falter as students make the often-turbulent transition into adolescence.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Henderson said. “We have to figure out what works best in each community.”
The locus of discontent is Ward 5 in Northeast, where the closing of seven under-enrolled schools in 2008 — part of a citywide round of 23 closures — left the community without a traditional middle school. The District instead consolidated some of the remaining schools into six PS-8 “campuses.”
Then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee promoted the hybrid model on several fronts. She cited research — widely disputed — that showed improved academic performance. Rhee also saw it as a way to retain families that tended to leave the system after fifth grade for public charter or private schools. PS-8 schools aimed to offer comfort and continuity for parents leery of the middle school options — either because of the schools’ poor academic records or because parents felt their rising sixth-graders were not yet prepared to deal with the adjustment.
On that count, the 17 PS-8 schools created in 2008 have been a modest success, officials say. District data show that as of this year, fewer students are leaving the system after fifth grade than were doing so in 2008.