05 Nov 2009

Councilmember Tommy Wells Talks Schools with THIH

Photo courtesy of MartinTurner's photostream

Photo courtesy of MartinTurner's photostream

Since Monday, THIH has written about the recent conversation this reporter and Sharee Lawler had with Tommy Wells and his chief of staff Charles Allen. The discussion covered  transportation, development, and crime. Today, we’ll address schools, especially the issues facing parents as their children matriculate from popular elementary schools in the neighborhood.

When the conservation moved to the topic of schools, Tommy Wells smiled. He’s proud of the progress elementary schools on Capitol Hill have made in recent years, and attributes much of the change to active parents and PTAs. With frequent news about the poor quality of DC Public Schools and efforts of Chancellor Michelle Rhee to close low-attended schools and shrink the faculty, the positive buzz around elementary schools in the neighborhood makes the topic of middle schools a must for any conversation about education.

There are eight DCPS elementary schools on the Hill (Brent, Watkins, Tyler, Maury, Peabody, Payne, Miner, Ludlow-Taylor) and two middle schools (Stuart Hobson and Eliot-Hine). Students who live north of G Street, Northeast, have rights to go to the newly opened flagship K-8 school Walker Jones Education Campus, and since Hine Middle School was closed, students south of East Capitol Street have the option to go to Jefferson Middle in Southwest or Eliot-Hine at 18th and Constitution. Last year, according to the the DCPS website, enrollment at Stuart Hobson was just under 400 students, for a facilities that have a capacity of 460. Eliot-Hine, the site of Ward Six Flu Clinics, at 19th and C Streets, Northeast, had only 258 students, yet capacity for 850.  Jefferson had 431 students in a space built for 900.

Wells hopes that active parents will be able to maintain enthusiasm for local public schools and use that “tidal wave to force middle school choice solutions.” He marvels at the “incredible” waiting list of 300 students at Brent, and said that parents on Capitol Hill have more options for school choice that are easy to walk to than anywhere in the United States. Parents have choices between traditional curriculum, Emilio Reggio and Montessori programs, language immersion and arts-focused curriculum. The vegetable and rain gardens present at so many schools tell the story of parent and community involvement and investment.

Wells thinks extending successful elementary programs into later grades will help curb the tendency for parents to move to the suburbs or enroll their children in private schools as they age. The first step towards accommodating the swell of students in elementary schools, he said, is to run schools as K-8 campuses whenever possible, like Walker Jones does. “There is space to do it at Payne and J. O. Wilson.” He said parents are slower to embrace the idea than he expected, “so I want to be careful how to proceed, I want to create [opportunities] so parents have an option.”

The second step is to radically improve Eliot-Hine, and make it a step on the path to sought-after high school spots. “We have a rockstar school at Wilson, so if parents want their kids to go to that school, they’re going to choose schools that feed into it.” He wants Eastern High School to fit that profile, and hopes middle school enrollment strategy will be similar, and thus compel parents to invest in Eliot-Hine since it’s a feeder school for Eastern.

Wells thinks when Eastern opens next fall with a health focus, state of the art labs, and curriculum that features an International Baccalaureate program (or something similar), the school will have a draw akin to Wilson. Offering a strong extracurricular program is imperative, he said, and Eastern’s campus offers great opportunities. Local parents have demonstrated a willingness to put the time and energy into such programs.

“Parents will hopefully say ‘this is my neighborhood school, it’s gorgeous, let’s figure out how to make it great for my kid’,” Wells said.

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  • Jenny

    The list of elementary schools on the Hill doesn’t include Payne. And it really should specify DCPS schools. There are charter elementary schools on the Hill as well.

  • Thanks for catching that — and you’re right, I omitted the charter schools. I’d really like to discuss charters with him at another point.

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