A D.C. fam­ily grap­ples with the politics of choos­ing a school

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PERRY STEIN

Joe Wee­don plans to pro­long the de­ci­sion as long as he can. He wants to at­tend just one more school open house. Talk to just a few more par­ents and teach­ers. Wrestle with the choice while he coaches just one more youth base­ball game.

And he needs to talk it through with his daugh­ter and wife at just one more din­ner in their row­house on the eastern edge of the Dis­trict’s Capi­tol Hill neigh­bor­hood.

The loom­ing de­ci­sion is one that for so many peo­ple tran­scends the politics and val­ues they so de­voutly hold: Where will his eighth-grade daugh­ter, Malia, at­tend high school in the fall?

Will she go to the selec­tive public high school she was ac­cepted to along with hun­dreds of other high-achiev­ing chil­dren? Or will she at­tend Eastern Se­nior

High, the tra­di­tional public high school blocks from her home, a school with an In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate (IB) pro­gram and ro­bust ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties — but low scores on stan­dard­ized tests?

The angst is com­pounded for Wee­don, who is one of the city’s most pas­sion­ate boosters of neigh­bor­hood schools. Eastern would seem like the nat­u­ral choice. But when it comes to his daugh­ter — when it comes to any­one mak­ing a de­ci­sion about their own child — ev­ery­thing is more com­pli­cated.

“Is there a win in this?” Wee­don said. “No, there’s not one good choice.”

And al­though Wee­don, who is white, says this is a de­ci­sion about the academic ex­pe­ri­ence his daugh­ter is seek­ing, it’s hard to ig­nore that if Malia were to at­tend Eastern, she would be one of the only white stu­dents at a school where the 800 or so stu­dent body is pre­dom­i­nantly black and low­in­come.

Wee­don, a non­profit leader and for­mer rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the D.C. State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, be­lieves that if more stu­dents in the Dis­trict at­tended the schools around the block from their homes, ed­u­ca­tion would be bet­ter — for ev­ery­one.

He has stood on that pul­pit as a fa­ther and an elected of­fi­cial, al­ways able to say he sends his two chil­dren to the ele­men­tary and mid­dle schools blocks away from his home.

But now his daugh­ter is old enough to have a say in where she will go to school. Three years ago, he and his wife de­cided to send Malia to Eliot-Hine, the neigh­bor­hood mid­dle school where most chil­dren come from low-in­come fam­i­lies and she is one of the few white stu­dents.

While the Wee­dons have seen the so­cial and com­mu­nity ben­e­fits that come with at­tend­ing their neigh­bor­hood mid­dle school, they have also en­coun­tered the chal­lenges. Most promi­nently: high turnover among teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors, which leads to an un­sta­ble academic en­vi­ron­ment. His daugh­ter says she has be­come an ex­pert card player be­cause of all the free time she has had with sub­sti­tute teach­ers.

Malia — a con­fi­dent, self­de­scribed nerd — said she would rather go to Eastern and com­mute by foot each day. But she wants to make sure it would be a more rig­or­ous ex­pe­ri­ence than mid­dle school.

“It doesn’t mat­ter to me who goes there,” Malia said.

At­tend­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion high school would mean Malia would have to travel down­town each day. “I don’t want to trans­fer three buses and go across the city just to go to school,” she said.

These ap­pli­ca­tion schools — in­tended to at­tract top-per­form­ing stu­dents — go against the Wee­dons’ ed­u­ca­tion con­vic­tions. They be­lieve us­ing test­ing as an ad­mis­sion re­quire­ment cre­ates a bar­rier to stu­dents from low­in­come fam­i­lies and ben­e­fits chil­dren like Malia.

In Eastern, the Wee­dons see a school on the rise. A school with a strong prin­ci­pal that could of­fer their daugh­ter ro­bust so­cial and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar op­tions, but a school they aren’t en­tirely con­vinced would pro­vide her the academic rigor she is seek­ing.

“I be­lieve strongly in our com­mu­nity, and I be­lieve that ev­ery kid de­serves a great ed­u­ca­tion,” said Amy Wee­don, Malia’s mother. “It’s what sent and kept her in Eliot-Hine, and it’s what puts Eastern on our list.”

When Joe and Amy Wee­don moved into their row­house nearly two decades ago in a cor­ner of the Dis­trict since re­branded as the more up­scale “Hill East,” most peo­ple liv­ing there were African Amer­i­can, with a large num­ber of older black Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who had their homes for gen­er­a­tions.

White and more af­flu­ent fam­i­lies started mov­ing in. The Wee­dons were part of a group of young, ed­u­cated par­ents who banded to­gether and said they would send their chil­dren to the neigh­bor­hood schools. They would be in­volved, vol­un­teer­ing at schools and ad­vo­cat­ing at city hall for more re­sources. And they would work to im­prove the mid­dle and high schools in their neigh­bor­hoods — Joe Wee­don is a long­time mem­ber of Eastern’s Parent Teacher Or­ga­ni­za­tion, though he has yet to have a child en­roll there — so when it came time for their chil­dren to at­tend, they would want to en­roll.

In 2008, Malia started preschool two blocks from home at Maury Ele­men­tary, a school with a stu­dent body that was mostly black and with plenty of empty seats. By the time she grad­u­ated eight years later, most of the stu­dents were white and class­were filled in some grades.

“When we told peo­ple we were go­ing to Maury, peo­ple looked at us like we were crazy,” Amy Wee­don re­called.

As the city gen­tri­fied, white and up­per-in­come fam­i­lies like the Wee­dons have en­rolled their chil­dren in their neigh­bor­hood ele­men­tary schools, par­tic­u­larly in the lower grades. But then they leave — and flee to pri­vate or top-per­form­ing char­ter or selec­tive schools for the later grades.

Malia was one of two white chil­dren from her ele­men­tary school to en­roll at Eliot-Hine Mid­dle.

School de­mo­graphic data shows just how un­usual the Wee­dons’ de­ci­sion was.

Only three of the 15 neigh­bor­hood mid­dle schools in the Dis­trict’s tra­di­tional public school sys­tem have a white stu­dent en­roll­ment ex­ceed­ing 2 per­cent. Many of the city’s mid­dle schools are com­bined with ele­men­tary schools, and most have no white chil­dren ei­ther.

Only one of the city’s nine neigh­bor­hood high schools has a white stu­dent en­roll­ment ex­ceed­ing 1 per­cent.

The Dis­trict’s tra­di­tional public schools ed­u­cate more than 52,000 chil­dren. City data show 61 per­cent are black, 20 per­cent are His­panic, 14 per­cent are white, 2 per­cent are Asian, and 2 per­cent iden­tify with two or more races.

The char­ter school sec­tor ed­u­cates nearly half the Dis­trict’s public school pop­u­la­tion, and 6 per­cent of char­ter stu­dents are white.

Some of this is to be ex­pected. The Dis­trict’s neigh­bor­hoods are largely seg­re­gated, and in the newly gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods, many of the white chil­dren are not yet old enough to at­tend mid­dle or high school. But Capi­tol Hill is dif­fer­ent. It is one of the city’s more di­verse neigh­bor­hoods. Af­flu­ent and white fam­i­lies with teenagers live there. It’s just that many have never con­sid­ered Eastern an op­tion.

Can that change?

Ben­e­fits in di­ver­sity

On a blus­tery af­ter­noon, Eastern sopho­more Chris­tian John­son gave D.C. Public Schools Chan­cel­lor Lewis D. Fere­bee a tour of the neigh­bor­hood around the high school.

They ex­ited the school’s Gothic brick build­ing, which has two tow­ers capped by para­pets — a struc­ture more at home at an elite univer­sity than in the mid­dle of the Dis­trict.

They walked past the sign with the school’s motto: “The Pride of Capi­tol Hill.” And they strolled along East Capi­tol Street North­east, in front of row­houses that sell for nearly $1 mil­lion.

Chris­tian pointed the chan­cel­lor in the di­rec­tion of his grand­mother’s house and said the neigh­bor­hood has changed dras­ti­cally since he was younger.

“Now, the area is much whiter,” John­son, who is black, told the chan­cel­lor.

When Chris­tian’s mother, So­nia John­son, at­tended Eastern in the 1980s, the crack epi­demic had rav­aged the neigh­bor­hood.

John­son re­called the school as an oa­sis from the vi­o­lence sur­round­ing it. The com­mu­nity and stu­dents em­braced the school’s award-win­ning choir and march­ing band.

But there were pro­found strug­gles as well. En­roll­ment plum­meted. In 2010, the city closed Eastern. A year-long shut­down al­lowed the school to be re­vamped, re­open­ing year-by-year. An IB track and a pop­u­lar health sci­ence pro­gram fol­lowed — all housed in a build­ing ren­o­vated to the tune of $77 mil­lion.

Three decades since her grad­u­a­tion, So­nia John­son says Eastern is far from per­fect, but she be­lieves there is more academic sup­port for stu­dents.

“Teach­ers are will­ing to help,” she said. “Af­ter school, they’ll spend an hour and help the kids catch up.”

Like Malia Wee­don, Chris­tian at­tended Maury Ele­men­tary. He left for Mary­land for two years, and when he re­turned in fourth grade, he said the school was ma­jor­ity white — a re­flec­tion of how quickly the neigh­bor­hood gen­tri­fied.

John­son said it was the only time he was in class­rooms along­side white stu­dents. For the first time, he learned what it was like to be the mi­nor­ity in a class­room.

“It molded me into a dif­fer­ent per­son,” he said of his time at the racially di­verse Maury.

He went on to Eliot-Hine, and now he’s at Eastern.

The charis­matic teenager, who as­pires to be a stand-up co­me­dian, plays sax­o­phone in the march­ing band and takes Ad­vanced Place­ment courses. He says he’s on track to be in the IB pro­gram his ju­nior year and plans to at­tend col­lege.

In 2018, 53 per­cent of Eastern grad­u­ates at­tended four-year col­leges, a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease from the pre­vi­ous year.

But for all its im­prove­ments, Eastern still has chal­lenges. Test scores are low, ab­sen­teeism is high — prob­a­bly re­flect­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties that come with serv­rooms a high con­cen­tra­tion of stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies.

About 25 per­cent of Eastern stu­dents re­quire spe­ciale­d­u­ca­tion ser­vices. More than 60 per­cent are con­sid­ered “at risk,” de­fined as stu­dents whose fam­i­lies are home­less or re­ceive wel­fare, or those who are more than a grade level be­hind in high school.

And the grand build­ing is a third empty.

Most of the stu­dents come from neigh­bor­hoods out­side Eastern’s bound­aries.

Ac­cord­ing to city data, only 19 per­cent of the high-school-age stu­dents — 291 teenagers — who live in Eastern’s bound­aries at­tend the school. Neigh­bor­hood stu­dents across all racial and so­cioe­co­nomic groups are choos­ing other op­tions.

Ex­perts say fam­i­lies’ ed­u­ca­tion de­ci­sions have con­se­quences for the en­tire com­mu­nity.

Hal­ley Pot­ter, se­nior fel­low at the Cen­tury Foun­da­tion, a lib­eral think tank, said it’s not that white or af­flu­ent chil­dren in­her­ently make a school bet­ter. But these fam­i­lies bring more re­sources with them. More ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers of­ten fol­low.

Data show racially and eco­nom­i­cally di­verse schools can help close the achieve­ment gap be­tween stu­dents from low­in­come fam­i­lies and their wealth­ier peers. Chil­dren from up­per­in­come fam­i­lies ex­pe­ri­ence no academic de­cline, and the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in di­verse class­rooms can chal­lenge their own prej­u­dices.

“There are in­di­vid­ual ben­e­fits and so­ci­etal ben­e­fits,” Pot­ter said. “That’s some­thing we want for all chil­dren.”

But cre­at­ing a di­verse school is not an easy feat.

Abi­gail Smith, the city’s for­mer deputy mayor for ed­u­ca­tion, said white fam­i­lies are of­ten un­com­fort­able send­ing their chil­dren to schools where stu­dents come from mostly black and His­panic fam­i­lies — and that would have to oc­cur if Eastern were to grow more racially di­verse.

“You bet­ter be­lieve what drives de­ci­sions — and this isn’t unique to the Dis­trict — is peo­ple’s level of com­fort be­ing in the ex­treme racial mi­nor­ity,” Smith said. “And white fam­i­lies are less will­ing to do it.”

‘No rea­son not to go there’

Chris­tine Clapp, whose two chil­dren at­tend Maury Ele­men­tary and are years away from high school, at­tended a the­ory of knowledge class at Eastern last year, ob­serv­ing stu­dents dis­cuss how his­to­ri­ans create knowledge and hu­mans learn to process that knowledge as fact.

The in­vi­ta­tion was part of Prin­ci­pal Sah Brown’s plan to in­tro­duce res­i­dents to Eastern.

Clapp, who is white, came away impressed. Af­ter the visit, it was de­cided.

Her chil­dren would at­tend Eastern.

“I want my kids to know they are no bet­ter than any other kids from any other back­ground and to pull them out of their feeder school be­cause it’s pre­dom­i­nantly black school, that sends the wrong mes­sage,” Clapp said.

For the first time, Brown and his staff have been vis­it­ing the five mid­dle schools that feed into Eastern with the school’s band and choir and de­liv­er­ing pre­sen­ta­tions on its academic of­fer­ings. He has opened up the school to youth soccer leagues so young fam­i­lies can spend time in the build­ing.

Be­cause of school bound­ary changes — which made the school’s zone larger and whiter — he said many fam­i­lies do not even as­so­ciate Eastern as be­ing their neigh­bor­hood high school.

Brown knows fam­i­lies — black and white — are of­ten dis­suaded from at­tend­ing the school, and he’s try­ing to com­bat that by hav­ing stu­dents do the talk­ing.

“It’s so pow­er­ful when the stu­dents stand in front of their peers,” Brown said. “A lot of them will be very trans­par­ent and say that peo­ple told them not to at­tend Eastern, but they are shar­ing that it’s been a great ex­peri­ing ence.”

But re­cruit­ing high school stu­dents is more com­pli­cated than just cre­at­ing a good school. First, fam­i­lies need to de­cide to en­roll their chil­dren in neigh­bor­hood mid­dle schools — an area that city lead­ers have ac­knowl­edged has been a weak spot.

At School-Within-School @ God­ing — an ele­men­tary school that is nearly 70 per­cent white and feeds into Eastern — the fourth-grade class had 42 stu­dents last academic year. This year, the fifth-grade class has 15 stu­dents — ev­i­dence of the out­flow of stu­dents, be­cause many char­ter mid­dle schools be­gin in fifth grade.

The neigh­bor­hood mid­dle schools and Eastern face steep com­pe­ti­tion from char­ter and ap­pli­ca­tion schools. On Capi­tol Hill, the neigh­bor­hood schools are los­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to city data, 130 stu­dents who live within Eastern’s bound­ary at­tend Ba­sis DC char­ter school and Wash­ing­ton Latin Public Char­ter School. More than 100 stu­dents at­tend School With­out Walls, a pres­ti­gious ap­pli­ca­tion high school that Malia Wee­don is con­sid­er­ing. And nearly 80 at­tend Friend­ship Public Char­ter School, a re­spected char­ter net­work with a mostly African Amer­i­can stu­dent body.

The Schoells are the only white fam­ily on Capi­tol Hill who did not leave their neigh­bor­hood for high school.

Heather Schoell’s rea­son­ing: She liked Eastern, and it was a few blocks from home.

She said putting her daugh­ters in Eastern — the school’s only two white chil­dren — was not some grand po­lit­i­cal state­ment.

“When I walked in there, I didn’t see any­thing trou­bling. There was no rea­son not to go there,” Schoell said. “We’re not mak­ing a sac­ri­fice by go­ing here.”

Now, it’s the Wee­dons who must de­cide. They learned March 29 that Malia was ac­cepted into School With­out Walls, a stroke of luck that does not make the fam­ily feel all that lucky.

Joe Wee­don said it is hard to turn down Walls, an elite school in such high de­mand that qual­i­fied stu­dents have to win a lot­tery to se­cure a slot. The fam­ily is lean­ing to­ward Walls.

But he’s not ready to re­ject Eastern just yet. So he is go­ing to weigh the de­ci­sion just a few more days — put his ed­u­ca­tion be­liefs aside for just a few days, and think about what’s best for Malia.

“Malia can’t change gen­er­a­tions of seg­re­ga­tion on her own,” Wee­don said. “I can’t put that on the shoul­ders of my 14-year-old.”

But maybe it will be dif­fer­ent when his son, two years younger, is ready for high school. He is al­ready hav­ing a more fruit­ful mid­dle school ex­pe­ri­ence at Eliot-Hine. When it’s their son’s turn, the Wee­dons hope they can con­fi­dently en­roll him in Eastern.

Right now, it’s about Malia and the choices in front of them.

“In some ways,” Joe Wee­don said, “I’m dis­ap­pointed we won the lot­tery.”

J. LAWLER DUG­GAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Malia Wee­don, 14, starts high school in the fall — but her fam­ily has strug­gled to de­cide where.

J. LAWLER DUG­GAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Malia Wee­don and her mother, Amy, be­fore school in Fe­bru­ary. The fam­ily is de­cid­ing whether Malia should at­tend Eastern High or a pres­ti­gious ap­pli­ca­tion school.

AMANDA VOISARD FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Eastern Se­nior High, which is blocks from Malia’s home, has an In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate pro­gram and ro­bust ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties but low scores on stan­dard­ized tests.

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