D.C. leaders say they will open a middle school in the city’s Takoma neighborhood in 2019 to feed into the under-enrolled Coolidge High School — the latest push in the city’s effort to keep families in D.C. Public Schools beyond the elementary grades.
If the city can persuade parents to enroll their children in the new middle school, the addition would be the latest boost to Ward 4, which had lost its only stand-alone middle school, MacFarland, amid a slew of school closures in 2013 because of low enrollment.
Ward 4 is home to some of the city’s rapidly booming and gentrifying neighborhoods, including Petworth, Brightwood and Takoma. The city reopened MacFarland as a Spanish dual-language school this academic year to feed into Petworth’s Roosevelt High School, aiming to attract new families in the neighborhood who have other choices, including public charter schools and private schools.
“Everybody in public education in the District will tell you that we are improving at the elementary school level and our focus really has to be how we can have robust options on the middle school level,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in an interview.
The new middle school is slated to open in the same building as Coolidge, which is scheduled for a massive renovation project that is expected to be completed by fall 2019. Coolidge serves the Brightwood, Takoma and Manor Park neighborhoods
Interim schools chancellor John Davis said planning for the middle school is in early stages; the city still doesn’t know whether it will have a specific academic focus, or if the school will open incrementally by grade level over three years or all at once.
Davis said the decision to open the middle school arose from parent feedback, and the school system will look to the community as it makes further decisions about the school.
“Overwhelmingly, parents wanted to see a middle school in the neighborhood,” Davis said.
But attracting parents could be a challenge. Coolidge High is one of the city’s lowest-performing schools, with none of its students considered “college- and career-ready” in math, and just 11 percent in English, according to results from student performance on the computerized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standardized test linked to the Common Core State Standards. In the 2015-2016 academic year, Coolidge had a relatively small enrollment of 384 students.
Davis said the city is hopeful that a new building and the addition of a middle school with a rigorous curriculum will attract parents back to their neighborhood schools and away from charters and other options. A strong middle school could mean a higher-performing crop of students feeding into Coolidge.
“We are confident about MacFarland, and we are confident that we will fill the slots in the middle school at Coolidge as well,” Davis said. “We need to demonstrate to parents that we are going to have a rigorous curriculum and programs — bands, choirs, extracurriculars and sports.”
Julie Lawson, a Takoma resident for the past six years, is one of the parents who has pushed for a strong neighborhood middle school feeding into Coolidge. Her 5-year-old son, Owen, attends Whittier Education Campus, a Takoma neighborhood school that also has a middle school. She said she wants to keep Owen on the neighborhood school track, but doesn’t want to enroll him in Whittier Middle because it is small and lacks robust extracurricular offerings. She is involved in the Coolidge parents’ community, but said she would not consider sending her son there if the high school is performing as it is now.
“I really value the neighborhood school concept and like that it is a five-minute bike ride to school, and we see other kids from school at the park,” Lawson said. “The reason why people are not trusting the elementary schools in the area is because they don’t see a viable path to middle school and high school and they want to get in a long-term path, even at 3 years old, they can use all the way.”
Bowser said the city recognizes that families make decisions about their children’s post-elementary school education at young ages, and that successful middle schools are crucial to attracting young, higher-income families into the school system.
Bowser ran her 2014 mayoral campaign, in part, on the slogan “Alice Deal for All,” a promise to work to replicate the high-performing middle school in upper Northwest Washington across the city.
“It has to be a consistent and sustained focus on the middle grades,” Bowser said last month. “We are certainly not there yet. Our focus is on making sure that parents have great options in their neighborhoods, and Coolidge certainly should be one of them.”