Dear Deputy Mayor Kihn and Acting Chancellor Ferebee,
We are responding to the recently released report by DC Public Schools on the Community Working Group on Overcrowding in Wilson Feeder Schools (CWG). The CWG was first convened by Chancellor Antwan Wilson in March 2017 to acknowledge the significant overcrowding at most of the schools in the elementary and middle schools that feed into Wilson High School, as well as Wilson High School itself.1 Its purpose was to discuss the extent of and possible solutions to overcrowding in the Wilson feeder pattern. The then Chancellor expressed that this overcrowding was a significant concern of his and DCPS’, and he viewed community participation as imperative in addressing the problem.
With overcrowding in the Wilson feeder pattern already a large problem and expected to increase significantly in coming years, it is important:
- To make policy changes and take other steps in the short-term,
- To plan now to add permanent school capacity over the medium term, and
- To work together to improve DC public schools city-wide.
A first, but small, step in addressing this problem was the additional funds in Mayor Bowser’s capital budget for DCPS last year for permanent extensions at Key and Stoddert Elementary Schools to replace existing portables, as well as additional portables at selected schools.
It is now crucial that the main take-aways, which we discuss below, become part of the analysis, along with the Master Facilities Plan, that inform the city’s 2020 budget process, as well as future capital planning.
- Nearly all of the schools in the Wilson feeder pattern are currently at or above capacity, and this overcrowding is affecting the educational experience of its students.
All participants in the CWG agreed that almost all of the schools in the feeder pattern are overcrowded, and this overcrowding is significantly affecting the quality of education in these schools. As noted by AECOM (the contractor that worked on the recent Master Facility Plan) a school building is overutilized when it is over 90 percent capacity. All schools in the feeder pattern except two meet this criteria, and eight of fifteen are at or well over 100 percent of their capacities.
Participants noted that common spaces such as gyms, outdoor playspace, hallways, and exits are stressed by overcrowding – even where additional portables had been added. Many specials classrooms have been converted to regular classrooms. In particular, students that are most vulnerable are affected because schools have neither space nor staff to address their needs when overcrowding becomes acute.
Moreover, the group agreed that maintaining and supporting diversity within the feeder pattern is important. As a result, the group rejected options that would significantly reduce out-of-boundary access to schools within the feeder pattern.
However, it is important to agree on the details of the current situation as it affects proposed solutions.
- One point of disagreement was the capacity figures for these schools.Parents and community members noted that DCPS’ capacity numbers had increased in some schools while the actual square footage of the schools had remained the same. For instance, Wilson High School, which had an initial capacity of 1600 students, as per the 2013 Master Facility Plan, is reported as having a capacity of 1700 students just last year (and is listed by DCPS as having a capacity of 1849 students in the current school year).
- Parents and community members also objected to including temporary space (portables) in the capacity calculations.DCPS agreed to break out temporary space from permanent capacity when showing capacity figures. This will help present a more transparent and accurate picture of school capacity.
- Looking at a variety of projections of future enrollment, overcrowding will get much worse in coming years.
As part of the CWG, the DME, DCPS, and community participants produced various projections of school-by-school enrollment, most of which showed substantial increases in enrollment for the feeder pattern. The DC Office of Planning’s population projections for the neighborhoods associated with the Wilson High School boundary are expected to see to a roughly 20 percent increase in elementary and middle school-aged children and a nearly 10 percent increase in high school-aged children over the next 10 years. In fact, the DC Auditor recently released a study that projected that Deal Middle School’s enrollment would rise to around 1750 students by the early 2020s and Wilson High School’s enrollment would rise to over 2300 students by the mid-2020s.
- Participants agreed that additional capacity is needed in the feeder pattern.
Perhaps the most fundamental conclusion reached by all involved is that creative solutions with existing space, while perhaps helpful in the short-run, are simply not enough. New schools are needed within the feeder pattern. From our perspective, this includes at least one new elementary school in each of the Deal and Hardy feeder patterns, as well as an additional new middle and an additional new high school. Indeed, if Wilson High School reaches its projected 2,300 students by the mid-2020s, the 700 students above its original capacity of 1600 students would by themselves constitute one of the largest high schools in the city after Wilson.
The group also agreed that additional early childhood education spots were needed. Some elementary schools have cut PK4 classrooms in order to accommodate other grades, and these pressures are likely to increase, endangering DC’s program of offering PK4 classes at every elementary school in the city. Dedicated Early Childhood Education (ECE) Centers could relieve pressure by opening up classroom space at several schools, provided space is not back-filled with additional enrollment. These ECE Centers also would be more flexible to open in smaller spaces. Moreover, additional use of OSSE’s program to fund PK slots in private providers could be a further creative idea, as long as students in the Wilson feeder pattern have some preference for these places.
Given the long lags in planning and construction for new schools, it is imperative that the city begins the planning for these new schools now. Failure to do so risks the possibility that schools will suddenly reach the physical limits of their space, and DCPS will have to arbitrarily force students to attend other schools on short notice. Such a situation would cause divisions in the city and undermine trust in the city’s leadership.
As part of the CWG, DCPS expressed a strong desire for any additional schools to be built using public land, as such options would limit costs to the city. As such, it identified the University of the District of Columbia as one possibility.
However, one point of disagreement is that parents and community members repeatedly pointed out that the Old Hardy School—the only DCPS building in the boundaries of the feeder pattern not currently in use by DCPS—could be reopened and modernized. The location is ideal as it sits adjacent to the Hardy Recreation Center, providing ample space for play and outdoor recreation. It is also close to Stoddert and Key, two very overcrowded elementary schools. Not using the Old Hardy School, when the city already owns the space, would be fiscally irresponsible in the extreme. And it would also be an insult to the rest of the city if precious resources that otherwise would not had been needed had to be used to acquire private space and construct additional buildings when many schools in other wards desperately need to be modernized or renovated.
- Increased capacity in the Wilson feeder pattern must be coupled with strengthening and improving schools across the city.
Participants strongly advocated that DC address the need to strengthen and improve schools across the city. All students should have access to excellent by-right neighborhood schools, as well as strong city-wide specialized options. The CWG acknowledged that they certainly could not speak for other communities in the city—who are better placed to know their own communities’ needs. But the group strongly felt that it should help support their advocacy.
The CWG agreed that to the extent that DCPS improved options nearby, such as language immersion programs or magnet programs for middle or high school, these might be attractive to families with rights to Wilson High School. This could then reduce some of the additional demand both at middle and high school. The group acknowledged that such programs would likely have to be city-wide.
- Since building additional capacity is both expensive and requires extensive planning, the groups discussed many creative short-term solutions and policy changes to try to relieve overcrowding pressures.
The overcrowded schools in the Wilson feeder pattern are in need of immediate short-term solutions. The group discussed various possibilities that would help alleviate pressures. For instance, DCPS could make creative use of the capacity at Duke Ellington High School, where the school has twice the capacity of the currently enrolled students. While the group did not settle on particular solutions to relieve overcrowding in the short-run, it is imperative that DCPS create and implement carefully crafted short-run solutions quickly. Parents and community members are eager to continue this dialogue with you and look forward to hearing your thoughts in this area.
Policy changes may also be helpful. One measure that was discussed was to stop DCPS’ decision to require schools to admit additional students, most importantly in some of the most overcrowded schools, if enrollment falls short of budget projections, which helps cause enrollment to rise naturally over time. Another was to ask the DC City Council to introduce usage fees for developers building additional housing in areas of the city with overcrowded schools to fund the building of more school capacity.
The Community Working Group on Overcrowding report represents close cooperation between school communities, and DCPS and DME staff. We wanted to thank both of you, your staff, as well as former Chancellor Wilson for the attention on school overcrowding. However, we also understand that this group is only the beginning of the conversation, and it will require further engagement with the community and extensive planning to make it a reality. We also acknowledge that some of these solutions do not solely lie in the pursue of DCPS, and we will all need to also collaborate closely with other agencies, the Mayor, the Council, and other communities. That said, we welcome your and the Mayor’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to overcrowding, and look forward to continuing to work together.
Brian Doyle and Melody Molinoff
Co-Chairs, Ward 3 – Wilson Feeder Education Network
On behalf of the Ward 3 – Wilson Feeder Education Network and the Parent and Community members of the Community Working Group on Overcrowding
Cc: Muriel Bowser, Mayor
Phil Mendelson, Council Chairman
David Grosso, Chair of the Education Committee, Council Member, At-Large
Anita Bonds, Council Member, At-Large
Elissa Silverman, Council Member, At-Large
Robert White, Council Member, At-Large
Brianne Nadeau, Council Member, Ward 1
Jack Evans, Council Member, Ward 2
Mary Cheh, Council Member, Ward 3
Brandon Todd, Ward 4
Kenyan McDuffie, Council Member, Ward 5
Charles Allen, Council Member, Ward 6
Vincent Gray, Council Member, Ward 7
Trayon White, Council Member, Ward 8
Shanita Burney, Chief Family and Public Engagement
Sara Goldband, Chief Business Officer
Melissa Kim, Deputy Chancellor of Social, Emotional, and Academic Development
Eugene Pinkard, Chief of School Design and Continuous Improvement
Carla Watson, Chief Operating Officer
 The CWG was composed of one parent and one staff member from each of the 15 schools in the feeder pattern, as well as Ward 3 State School Board representative, Ruth Wattenberg, a member from Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh’s office, and one of the co-chairs of the Ward 3 – Wilson Feeder Education Network. The group met about monthly, between May 2017 and January 2018, discussing capacity and enrollment numbers, brainstorming about possible solutions, and debating their feasibility. Notes from these meetings were posted by the DCPS Planning office online at https://dcpsplanning.wordpress.com/tag/ward-3/.