By guest author Joe Weedon
Elementary schools across Capitol Hill are booming. Enrollment is up, test scores are improving. Our neighborhood’s success in supporting our neighborhood elementary schools has even entered into the Mayoral debate. Councilmember Wells regularly states that, “every elementary school in Ward 6 has a waiting list” and that “I know we can improve schools across the city because we’ve done it in Ward 6.”
Ward 6 is also home to Eastern High School. Since Eastern’s reopening in 2011, after a $75 million renovation, they have launched many innovative programs including the Health & Medical Science Academy (HMSA) designed to prepare students for careers in health care; the BUILD program, providing the skills young entrepreneurs need to succeed; and the ACE, or Accelerated Cohort @Eastern, providing students the opportunity to accelerate their learning. Eastern has also been authorized to award the prestigious International Baccalaureate Diploma.
Eastern students have participated in international service trips, developed leadership skills through Youth Leadership Washington, and gained work experience through an Easternships program supported by regional companies. While doing all this, Eastern is keeping its students on-track to graduate and its students are higher on DCCAS tests than other comprehensive public schools across the city.
Despite our community’s success in building our elementary schools and the wonderful programs and opportunities being created for students at Eastern, there is still a missing link in our community – Middle School.
Middle School. The Missing Link.
Many of the concerns I hear voiced about our neighborhood middle schools today are similar to those elementary schools across the neighborhood faced just a few years ago. What is the curriculum? What are the test scores? Are they safe? Why don’t more neighborhood (or in-bounds) children attend? You also hear the familiar, “I’m not going to risk my child’s future.” Ultimately, the answer to each of these questions or concerns about our middle schools must be answered, individually, by each family. Each parent must make a choice and do what they feel is best for their children. What we can’t do is dismiss the benefits of building strong, neighborhood middle schools in our community.
The most significant of the lack of quality middle school options is the impact on the elementary schools that we’ve worked so hard to build. Across the Hill, high-performing students leave elementary schools each year, transferring into “more desirable” feeder patterns within DCPS, transferring to DC public charter schools, or leaving for the lure of “better” schools in the suburbs. The impact of this is seen in our schools’ test scores, in the culture and learning environment within our classrooms, and in our children’s friendships.
Not having strong middle school options also impacts Eastern HS. Eastern attracts students from across the city, including from across Ward 6. These students enter Eastern with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. By building strong neighborhood middle schools on the Hill that are a part of a system between our elementary schools and Eastern HS, we can ensure that more students are ready to succeed on their first day as an Eastern Rambler.
Not having strong community middle schools also impacts our home values and our neighborhood’s businesses. Across the Hill, we’ve all seen property values increase as our elementary schools have become ‘schools of choice,’ but the lack of middle school options places a cap on property values. Businesses lose loyal customers and employees (or future employees) to other parts of the city or suburbs as our students leave Capitol Hill.
And, the strongest arguments for strong neighborhood middle schools is the impact they would have on our children and our community itself. In their years in elementary school, playing soccer or t-ball through Sports on the Hill, or taking dance classes at Joy of Motion, our children are forming relationships with each other. Parents become acquainted at the coffee shops or on the sidelines and, often, become friends. Unfortunately, when it is time to discuss middle school, we end up competing with each other for “coveted” seats in the DCPS Lottery and as our children attend different schools and make new friends the bonds that make our community so great are strained as we spend time attending events at different schools and commuting.
“All Roads Lead to Eastern”
Several years ago, a group of parents from across Capitol Hill came together to develop the Ward 6 Middle School Plan. This plan, presented to the community at Maury ES by Chancellor Rhee and supported by Chancellor Henderson, is beginning to transform our neighborhood middle schools across the Hill.
Our neighborhood middle schools – Eliot-Hine MS, Jefferson Academy MS, and Stuart-Hobson MS – are all on the right track. In recent years, we’ve seen them reinvigorated by new leadership. We’ve seen the adoption and implementation of new curriculum and new technology. We’ve seen growth in student achievement as well.
Ultimately, I will be sending my children to Eliot-Hine MS, the in-boundary DCPS middle school for my family. My wife and I made this decision not to make a statement about our support for public education, but because we believe it is the best option for our children. The academic environment is strong. The small school size will ensure our kids get individualized attention from teachers and support staff. And, it’s the only school where our children are guaranteed to have a chance to remain with their friends.
Build a strong road to Eastern HS will take the same commitment and involvement that it’s taken to build our elementary schools. And, it will take more cooperation across schools and across our community. Despite the work that lays ahead, I look forward to seeing (and possibly shedding a tear or two) with our Hill neighbors at the 2023 and 2025 Eastern HS graduation ceremonies.