The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts in category education

Education


What do parents want? A good school, not too far, and some other kids that look like them

Rich or poor, black or white, a family's decision of where to enroll their child in school is one of the most important, gut-wrenching, and revealing choices they can make. In DC, parents can choose from over 200 charter and district schools. By analyzing that data for a recent study, we were able to shed some light on what drives parents' choices.


Images from the study.

What we analyzed

As in other cities, any DC student in kindergarten through grade 12 has a right to attend a neighborhood public school based on his or her home address. But students can also enter a lottery for an open spot at any neighborhood school or public charter school in the city.

In 2014, DC moved from separate lotteries for each school to a common system, MySchoolDC, where applicants rank up to 12 schools. A random lottery process chooses which students get the spots at any school which has more applicants than spaces.

In a recent study for Mathematica Policy Research we had the opportunity to analyze over 20,000 rank-ordered lists that parents submitted in 2014, the first year of the unified lottery. We combined these lists with data describing characteristics of the students and their families, the schools themselves, and information on household and school neighborhoods, including crime and demographics.

This allowed us to estimate the importance parents place on different school attributes, including commuting distance, transit access, test score proficiency rates, programmatic offerings, the school's racial-ethnic composition, the percentage of disadvantaged students, school neighborhood characteristics, and a variety of other factors.


MySchoolDC.org.

DC is a city of liberal values and unconscious biases, of racial diversity and racial tension, of rich and poor, newly arrived and long-time residents. Parents' individual decisions add up to collective social outcomes, patterns of racial and class composition, that have lasting effects on the social fabric of DC.

Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote a moving piece in the New York Times capturing these themes as they played out in her gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. The same issues come into stark relief in DC.

What parents value when choosing schools

The analysis suggests that parents do prefer schools close to home, but (not surprisingly) they are willing to tolerate a longer commute to a school with higher test scores.

The preference for academic performance was quite strong: if two schools were identical in every way except for their "tier" rating, parents would travel an average of seven miles for a school in the highest category over one with the lowest.

Academic performance was not the only factor. We also found that parents choose schools based on the race and income of students, but did not weight that as strongly.

Parents tend to rank schools higher if there are more students in the same racial or ethnic group as their own children. But the strength of this "own-group" preference differs by grade level, the applicant's race/ethnicity, and the percentage of a school's students in the child's own group.

If the own-group percentage is low, parents show a strong preference against a school. But as the percentage rises, the relationship weakens and even becomes negative, suggesting a taste for diversity.

In short, parents on average seem to want their children to not be in the vast minority at their school, but as long as there are some students of similar racial or ethnic backgrounds, this stops being a priority. (More detailed results are available in the technical paper here).

The analysis found that typical middle school parents would be willing to send their children over two miles farther just to get from a school where 10% of students share the child's race/ethnicity to one with 20%. But if choosing between schools with 40% or 50% of the same race/ethnicity, they would only be wiling to travel a half mile more to school.

Does choice affect segregation?

One fierce debate in education is about whether school choice—the policy allowing families to select a school besides the local one—worsens segregation. Some people may opt out of higher-poverty schools or those with high numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. Does this entrench segregation? Or is the segregation already there in residential living patterns?

We compared the current levels of racial and income segregation in DC to alternative scenarios where everyone got his or her first choice (which would unrealistically require some schools to be far, far larger) and where everyone went to his or her neighborhood school (though in reality, not everyone would attend that school in the absence of choice; some families would move or choose private schools).

It turns out that the existing policy results in less segregation by race for middle schools than if every student simply attended the in-boundary neighborhood school.

What if everyone could attend their most preferred school (ignoring any space limitations)? This would not increase racial segregation. Rather, the analysis showed nearly the same amount of racial segregation as the current policy or perhaps slightly lower.

We repeated this exercise, but removed the lowest-performing schools as school choice options to simulate a policy that directs more students toward high-performing schools. In this case, we found again that racial segregation would not increase under these circumstances, but fall further, to a value of 68 on a scale where 100 is the most segregated and 0 is the least

In addition to racial segregation, we looked at segregation of students by income level (low-income versus non-low-income). using the same type of metric, this time with students who are certified as low-income versus all other students. The overall segregation level by income was only 41 under the current policy, but interestingly, that level is even greater than it would have been if students had simply attended their neighborhood schools.

However, we found that if everyone could attend their most preferred schools, it would result in segregation by income roughly equivalent to a policy of no school choice (32 points, just one point lower than with neighborhood schools).

These findings for race and income segregation looked slightly different for families applying to elementary and high school, where the context is different in terms of both the applicants and the diversity of schools they are applying to. For example, white and Hispanic families' own-race preference was stronger among applicants to elementary schools, as emphasized in a recent Slate article, than applicants to middle and high schools.

Nevertheless, choice policies that expand seats at popular schools were predicted to reduce segregation by both race and income in elementary schools. For high schools, neighborhood school assignment was predicted to lower both types of segregation compared to the current policy (school choice with a lottery for oversubscribed schools).

Again, choice with no cap on the number of accepted applicants and removal of the lowest-performing schools always results in the lowest indices of both race and income segregation (this assumes it would be possible to increase capacity at individual campuses).

What is consistent between all levels of school is that policies which let all students into their first choice (the two blue bars in the graphs above) led to the lowest segregation. For high schools, putting everyone into the neighborhood school (purple bar) also lowered segregation compared to the current policy.

Parents in DC are not race-blind, nor do they ignore the socio-economic status of their children's potential peers. But they also are sensitive to distance and indicators of academic quality. There are also numerous unmeasured determinants of choice.

Based on the data we have available, though, we don't see evidence that the worst fears of choice opponents are true. That is, we don't see evidence that school choice by itself worsens the level of school segregation produced by residential patterns.

However, we also don't see choice as a very powerful mechanism for voluntary desegregation. There remains much work to be done to understand the impacts of choice on equity and access to quality schooling for the most disadvantaged. We also need to better understand how disadvantaged families access information about school options.

The model in this study, however, provides a promising tool for leveraging data to predict the effects of policy changes on sorting of students across schools throughout the city.

Development


What do 80,000 people in a square mile look like? Depends on where you put them.

When we talk about dense housing, many think of New York City skyscrapers, or Soviet blocks. But as images maps of different neighborhoods in DC show, not all density looks the same.


A high-density block in Columbia Heights. All images from Google Maps.

Google Maps recently unveiled its auto-generated 3D imagery for DC. Using this feature, I compiled snapshots of what different levels of density—measured by people per square mile (ppsm)—look like throughout DC and Arlington. The population density numbers come from the 2014 American Community Survey, and I calculated at the census block group level.

5,000 people per square mile

In the Palisades, winding streets are lined with large houses (~5,000 ppsm):

And in Brookland, detached single family homes sit on lots with front setbacks and spacious backyards (~6,000 ppsm):

15,000 people per square mile

Though walkable, most of Georgetown isn't particularly dense, with blocks of tiny rowhouses clocking in at about 15,000 ppsm:

Lamond-Riggs achieves a similar population density with suburban-style duplexes (~13,000 ppsm):

20,000 - 30,000 people per square mile

With a mix of both historic and new-construction rowhouses, this block group in Hill East sits at around 22,000 ppsm:

This section of Fort Dupont is similarly dense, but looks much different. Garden apartments centered around green space and surface parking give this area a density of roughly 27,000 ppsm:

30,000 - 40,000 people per square mile

In Glover Park, rows of attached houses line a network of relatively narrow streets (~31,000 ppsm):

A mix of duplexes and garden apartments puts this part of Shipley Terrace at about 35,000 ppsm:

40,000 - 50,000 people per square mile

These blocks bordering the south end of Adams Morgan are almost entirely filled with large rowhouses, with a few bigger apartment buildings situated on the main thoroughfares (~45,000 ppsm):

In Rosslyn, parking lots and highways surround these 7- to 10-story apartment buildings (~47,000 ppsm):

50,000 - 60,000 people per square mile

These apartment complexes on Massachusetts Avenue near American University don't cover a lot of land area, but their height makes them relatively dense (~53,000 ppsm):

Dupont Circle's streets blend rowhouses with 4- to 8-story prewar apartment buildings (~55,000 ppsm):

80,000+ people per square mile

This section of Columbia Heights is mostly close-together 4-story apartment buildings, giving it both a high density and a human scale (~80,000 ppsm):

At the north end of Mount Pleasant, a large apartment complex pushes this block over 85,000 ppsm:

Just south of Logan Circle, bulky apartment buildings both old and new give rise to densities over 100,000 ppsm:

Pedestrians


This may be DC's most ridiculous missing crosswalk

Walk through the heart of the GW campus, just a block from the Foggy Bottom Metro, and you might suddenly, bizarrely, run into an intersection where you aren't supposed to cross the street:


Photo by the author.

By DC law, any place where a street interrupts a sidewalk, there is a legal crosswalk. Even if there aren't any stripes marking it, there's still a crosswalk there. And the District Department of Transportation's official design manual requires marked crosswalks at all intersections. But that doesn't stop DDOT from sometimes designing intersections without crosswalks.

Often, the road's designers are putting the fast speed of traffic as their top priority and trading away the needs of people on foot. At Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue NE, for instance, engineers wanted a double left turn lane, and that's incompatible with a crosswalk. Then-director Gabe Klein intervened to insist on a crosswalk. That example turned out well, but many intersections get built without all of their crosswalks.

It's not right to force people to cross three times just to keep going straight. It adds a lot of time to each walker's trip and sends a clear message that people on foot are second-class citizens. Most often, this happens in complex intersections or in areas with low numbers of people walking, though even there that's not right (it just perpetuates the situation).

Most often, this situation crops up where diagonal streets meet the grid, like at 15th Street and Florida Avenue NW or 4th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Here, though, this is a regular corner of two typical DC grid streets (22nd and I NW), and it's in a heavily-walked area on a college campus near Metro. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A chair Patrick Kennedy explained in a series of tweets:

This intersection was controlled by a 4-way stop until about ¾ years ago, when a light was installed to handle increased traffic relating to the new development at Square 54. All crossings were possible with the 4-way stop.

When the light was installed, DDOT updated the ADA ramps but determined that they couldn't them at this crossing because of the WMATA emergency access grates positioned at the curb on either side of the street. My suggestion was that they install a bulb-out here to extend the sidewalk into the curb lane and give them the additional space needed to add a ramp since there's no rush-hour lane here and no parking near the intersection.

As of yet, that suggestion has not been taken. Meanwhile, as you can probably imagine, people cross here all the time anyways.

Pedestrian Advisory Council member Eileen McCarthy said, "It's not the intent of the ADA to make crossings more difficult." She further argues that DDOT doesn't even have the legal authority to close this crosswalk.

DDOT Pedestrian Program Coordinator George Branyan said that DDOT is working internally and with WMATA to devise a solution. While that's great, DDOT should have either waited on the signal until the solution was ready or put in crosswalks anyway (as McCarthy suggests is legal) in the interim instead of putting up this sign banning walkers.

After all, DDOT's own manual says:

29.7 Pedestrian Crossings

Marked Crosswalks will be required at all signalized intersections, school areas, and high pedestrian areas.

That doesn't say "except if it will inconvenience drivers too much," though in practice, DDOT often abrogates this in the name of traffic flow, and then often without public notice or discussion.

In the ensuing Twitter discussion, people pointed out similar missing crosswalks at 9th and D NW and at the "Starburst" intersection where H Street NE meets Benning Road, Bladensburg Road, 15th Street, Florida Avenue, and Maryland Avenue.

What other missing crosswalks are near you?

Bicycling


A new bikeshare station could be a side benefit to this housing redevelopment

Plans to redevelop Park Morton, a public housing development in Park View just south of Petworth, are taking shape. Aside from adding housing options to the area for both low and middle-income residents, the project could be a chance to expand Capital Bikeshare in a place where demand for the service often outpaces supply.


An empty Capital Bikeshare station at Georgia and Columbia NW. Image from Google Maps.

The existing Park Morton housing site is centrally located in Park View, to the east of Georgia Avenue on Morton Street. The site has a total of 12 three-story walkup apartment buildings for a total of 174 public housing units. The redevelopment plan is to replaces the current structures with approximately 456 units of mixed income housing spread across both the Park Morton site and the former Bruce Monroe School site at Georgia Avenue and Columbia Road.

To accomplish this, both sites will be developed through the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process, which permits zoning flexibility—usually including taller buildings—if the project includes benefits for the surrounding community. One benefit this project will include are two new parks—one on Columbia Road and one on Morton Street (see the map below for locations).


More CaBi stations could be another benefit included in the PUD. At the existing stations, at Georgia Avenue and Columbia Road and Georgia and New Hampshire Avenue, there's often a shortage of bikes after the morning rush, and stations don't always get replenished in the evenings.

A review of this CaBi crowdsourcing map below shows that residents feel that both of these stations need to be larger because they're often out of bikes:


Capital Bikeshare's map of stations in the area, with comments from users.

"Park View needs more stations!," says voicevote, a commenter on the map. "The one at Georgia and NH is always empty

Furthermore, there has been a significant push for a new station in the area, near Georgia Avenue and Park Road. However, today there is no space that can accommodate a new station at that location

"This area needs a station!," says heckalopter, another commenter. "It's a long walk to the other stations, which are usually empty by very early in the morning. Many residents in this area are using the too-few stations further away."

A review of available bike availability at Bikeshare stations supports comments on the crowdsourcing map. In reviewing the Bikeshare station map shortly after noon on Monday, June 20, many of the stations in the area had fewer that two bikes, and many had no available bikes.

The significant exception here is the station at the hospital center, which is a commuter destination rather than a point of departure.


Image from Capital Bikeshare.

Because the Park Morton development effort includes new dedicated open spaces, new sidewalks, new streets, and other improvements as part of its master plan, it creates an opportunity to enlarge the Bikeshare station on Columbia Road and establish a new station on Morton Street as part of that plan. These stations ideally would be located near the new parks and could be established with minimal impact to either the design or overall budget.

Transit


American U tuition will cover unlimited Metro rides

Back in December, WMATA and American University proposed a program that would allow students to pay a discounted rate for unlimited rides on both bus and rail. A student referendum and months of planning later, the pilot program is a reality. It launches this coming school year.


Image from WMATA.

Called the "U•Pass," the new pilot program reaches far more students than a previous effort between WMATA and American. Over 10,000 full-time undergrad, grad and law students at American will receive a SmarTrip card complete with a unique serial number and AU Logo. U•Pass will give holders unlimited rides on all bus and rail lines in the WMATA system.

Because American is on the hook for footing the bill, all full-time students will be enrolled, and an extra $130 per semester will be added to tuition to pay for the pass.

That increase in tuition will be worthwhile for most students given the benefits of the pass: WMATA has estimated that the average full-time student will save $1000 on transportation per school year. Additionally, since the cost of U•Pass is included in tuition, financial aid can cover the cost of the pass. Being able to pay for U•Pass through financial aid lifts a heavy burden for those who struggle to pay for Metro on top of college expenses to get to work or internships.

U•Pass will make it easier than ever for students to use Metro. The U•Pass is already paid for, creating the incentive to take the bus or train to campus instead of another service like Uber or Car2go. The savings combined with convenience will make it hard not to use Metro.

This partnership between WMATA and American solves the biggest dilemma previous pilots have failed to work out, and something WMATA struggles with in general: dedicated funding. WMATA has estimated that it will receive $2.7 million just this fiscal year from U•Pass sales.

Beyond the direct funding, WMATA is getting access to 10,000 students that may not have used the Metro system for their everyday needs before. A successful U•Pass program could lead to other universities doing something similar, and there's a lot of potential in the hundreds of thousands of college students in DC.

All these potential riders are even more crucial because they are often off-peak riders. WMATA is looking for ways to not only increase ridership but to also even out ridership across the system from the current commuter pattern.

The students want this program

This past semester, American held a student referendum on the proposed U•Pass pilot and tuition increase. After two weeks of voting, an overwhelming 85% of the student body voted to approve the program.

Students are excited after hearing the news. A quick search of Twitter shows students asking the AU Office of Campus Life when and where they can pick up their new U•Pass. Students will pick up the pass during Welcome Week at many locations across campus, or can go to the Office of Parking and Traffic Services for late pickup.

It's still just a pilot

The U•Pass Program is still a pilot, but it seems to be poised for success. As the program matures, and hopefully grows to more universities, WMATA and participating universities should look into expanding the program to other local jurisdictions. Currently, the U•Pass only works on WMATA, meaning students who use other systems such as Ride On or ART will need to have an additional SmarTrip to get around.

U•Pass will provide us with an opportunity to study the commuting patterns of students. Many bus lines run either through AU's campus via Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues or by AU's Washington College of Law and satellite buildings on Wisconsin Ave. It will be interesting to see if the unlimited bus pass will translate into increased bus ridership in these areas.

The U•Pass pilot program is an exciting new option for AU students. Partnerships between WMATA and the area's universities need to grow, and this pilot is a step in the right direction.

Development


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.


The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.


This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC