Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Capitol Hill


Enough broken promises from DDOT

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) promised to complete a number of important projects by now or by the end of this year. Quick quiz: Can you identify which of these have met or will meet the promised deadline?

Photo by Len Matthews on Flickr.

  • Start streetcar service on H Street NE-Benning Road by the end of the year.
  • Devise a better system for handling visitor parking passes and residential permit parking.
  • Start building a separated bike lane (or "cycletrack") on M Street NW.
  • Expand Capital Bikeshare to twice its original size.
  • Make pedestrian safety improvements to Maryland Avenue NE.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of a new median on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Glover Park.

The answer: None of the above. DDOT has delayed or given up on all of these promises.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.


Public Spaces

Can Eastern Market park become a gathering place?

Barracks Row Main Street is studying ways to redesign the public space around the Eastern Market Metro station. While many neighbors see the potential to make a great gathering place, others don't want anything to change at all.

Councilmember Wells leads a meeting about the park. Photo from Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates is leading the Congressionally-funded Eastern Market Metro Park study, which will explore ways "to renew and upgrade" the two trapezoid-shaped public plazas, medians and two smaller triangular plazas on Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 7th and 9th streets. Despite their location between busy Barracks Row and Eastern Market, the spaces are underused and poorly maintained.

Weinstein led another study in 2010 that explored ways to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue around the public space, making it a complete square. But that effort ran into stiff opposition from neighbors and those concerned about the plan's traffic impacts.

The new study will look at function, aesthetics, and the best way to accommodate all modes of transportation, including better pedestrian pathways, the location of the Capitol Bikeshare station and the Metrobus stops in the south plaza, and managing pedestrian/vehicular conflicts. It will also produce detailed designs for a children's play area in the north plaza, and look at an innovative storm water retention system as part of the effort to reduce combined sewer overflows into the Anacostia River.

Planners say that "nothing is off the table," except for consolidating the square by rerouting streets around it.

Will more activity mean more noise, or a better public space?

In July, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells hosted a pair of public meetings to hear about the types of changes residents would like to see around the Metro station. After a brief presentation, we broke into small groups where we discussed our thoughts on the current square and what we would and would not like to see in it in the future.

Aerial photo of the parks today from Google Maps.

My group seemed opposed to any changes at all. They questioned why money was being spent on this, whether it was legal and who this was to help. Some people seemed mainly concerned about stoplight timing, which did not seem to allow for the speedy movement of cars and pedestrians through the area.

They scoffed at the idea that the project had the word "park" in it. "Who said they wanted a park here?" one person asked.

One major concern they voiced focused on the lack of maintenance within the existing plaza. Trees went unwatered, rats were allowed to nest and several items like benches and lights had fallen into disrepair. "Why not fix what we have first?" some asked. For the same reason, group members also opposed any kind of water feature, along with music, food trucks or eating areas, which would produce noise and trash.

Group members seemed resigned to the idea of a children's play area as long as it wouldn't kill any trees, but their primary point was that it should be "a park, not an amusement park." But we did find universal support of better storm water management, lots of trees, more benches and non-polluting lights.

How to embrace space's potential

While many residents place an emphasis on creating a quiet place that is easy to traverse, what the neighborhood really needs is to activate the Eastern Market Metro Park with an emphasis on creating a place for people to play, work, shop, eat, and rest. By making it into a great place, the kind that people wanted to stay in instead of pass through, it would have a greater constituency that could push for better maintenance.

The space today. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

It seems my group was the outlier, because when other groups reported what they had discussed, they strongly supported the idea of an interactive water feature like those at Yards Park or Canal Park. Several suggested adding a stage for live performances and various gatherings. Others mentioned food trucks and more dining tables. One group focused on tying the public space in with the library at 7th and Pennsylvania.

The meeting's organizers are collecting additional comments about what should happen here. In my comments, I suggested that an interactive water feature and playground area in the north plaza was a natural way to attract kids and families. It's also a perfect area for a statue of a local person. In the eastern median, I recommended installing a dog run.

The south plaza should become a space where people will linger. Furniture, like movable chairs, benches, and permanent fixtures like tables with chess boards on top, will help draw people. A low stage for music and events could support programming while doubling as a seating area the rest of the time. The city should allow food trucks to use the parking spaces along D Street.

We should also use the western median to connect Barracks Row and Eastern Market with a brick walkway down the middle and to add spaces for vendor booths on the weekends, creating a stronger connection between the two commercial areas. The smaller triangles could become larger by removing the sections of D Street that separate them and then improved by adding benches, more permeable surface, and rain gardens.

Finally, a mid-block crosswalk across Pennsylvania Avenue with an advanced stop line and even a traffic light will help people cross. People want to walk here, and we should let them do it safely.

Future meetings, design work planned

The meeting's organizers will put a recap of the meeting on their website, but it's not up as of yet. There are also several ways to offer comments, including an interactive map and a suggestion box at Eastern Market, though the deadline is today.

However, there are more public meetings planned for later this summer. Planners hope to complete two alternate master plan concepts for the Eastern Market Metro Park within 6 months.


New sidewalk uses porous, flexible pavement

At first glance, the tree at the northeast corner of 8th and K Streets, NE appears to be buried in asphalt. The truth is much more interesting.

To comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, DDOT rebuilt the intersection of West Virginia Avenue NE, 8th Street and K Street in the H Street neighborood. This intersection is a busy transfer point between the 90 and D Metrobus lines and has a lot of foot traffic.

Image from DDOT provided by Veronica Davis.

DDOT has installed modern curb ramps at all pedestrian crossings, and they've repaired the concrete in order to smooth out some potentially dangerous bumps. The elderly and disabled now have a smoother path to get from bus to bus as they travel across town.

(It would be nice if DDOT would restripe the crosswalks with higher-visibility zebra/piano striping, but perhaps that's a subject for another blog post.)

Within the project limits, there were two trees whose roots were lifting the sidewalk. This created dangerous tripping hazards and the narrowed sidewalks made it difficult for those in wheelchairs to use the sidewalk.

The sidewalk before. Image from Google Street View.

Instead of concrete, construction workers have used porous pavement in these areas that extend all the way around each tree. This makes the sidewalks a bit wider, eliminates the need to trim weeds around the base of the trees, and allows more water to filter through the ground to the trees' roots.

It will be interesting to see how well this pavement works, and if we'll be seeing it used more widely around town in the near future.


Curb parking and garage parking aren't the same

"It almost always comes down to parking," said DC Councilmember Tommy Wells at a hearing last week on DC's zoning update, and he's right. Wells tried to explain a tricky point to opponents of the zoning update: how higher parking minimums don't make it easier to park on the street.

Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

Wells agrees with many residents that parking on neighborhood streets has become more difficult, and he wants to do something to ease that task for existing residents. However, he doesn't believe that requiring new apartment buildings to build more parking, or preventing them from building less, is going to really have any effect.

"In ward 6 we've had substantial infill development," he said, "and the way we've managed parking is through regulation" like adding meters and limiting parking on one side of many streets to Ward 6 residents. Residents of some new buildings also can't get residential permit parking (RPP) stickers. And, Wells argued, it's worked.

On the other hand, minimum parking requirements along with the existing cheap, easy-to-get RPP stickers won't dissuade people from parking on the street, said Wells:

If you put in minimum parking and they get RPP, there's 2 things that will happen. The first is, almost every building charges for the parking... If they get RPP, which are they going to pay for? a $100-200 a month space, or $35 [a year] for the RPP sticker? You know exactly what they're going to do, it'll be $35 for the RPP sticker and they won't buy the parking inside."
Wells wants to solve this problem with his legislation (which Chairman Phil Mendelson opposed last year) to let developers opt out of RPP eligibility. Before a specific building has anyone living there, its developer can agree that future residents, in perpetuity, won't be able to get residential stickers.

Some people don't like the idea of residents of some buildings not being able to get stickers while their neighbors can get them, but Arlington and many other cities do have similar practices. Whether you support this approach or not, Wells is right on the mark that parking minimums won't make parking on the street easier.

Off-street parking is not the same as on-street

Many people seem to assume that parking is a single market. If you build more parking of any type, it becomes easier to find; build less (or even require building less), and it will get more scarce. But in fact, there are two separate markets.

Later in the hearing, Lon Anderson of AAA made the same mistake. He expressed his incredulity that the Babe's project, which will have 60 units, only 1 parking space (for persons with disabilities), and a deal with the ANC to prohibit residents getting RPP stickers, would work. Why? Because it's hard to park in Tenleytown.

In fact, it's hard to park on the street. It turns out that there are extra spaces for rent in the Whole Foods and Best Buy garages. But people assume that if the streets are full, there must not be any empty space in a garage, and that's what Wells is trying to rebut.

Allen Seeber, one of the witnesses, claimed that the Office of Planning "can't produce any evidence whatsoever" that some buildings have overbuilt parking. Wells immediately cited the Loree Grand, a building in NoMA. Seeber pressed on, and Wells again jumped in with the Bernstein property in Southwest where, Wells said, "they built a condo building, they provided a bunch of parking, and it didn't sell."

People are renting their spaces and parking on the street

Wells said that in his experience, people on Capitol Hill are actually renting out their spaces and using their RPP stickers to park on the street. "They have parking behind their house, and then they park on the street for $35 a [year], and they can get $100-200 a month for the parking behind their house," he said. "[Parking minimums] did nothing to protect our parking in that part of the Hill."

Wells also mentioned a pair of parking spaces on the Hill which just sold for $120,000. The purchaser was an area business, which wanted the spaces after new restrictions reserved more of the neighborhood space for residents. And that, Wells said, was the point. Instead of competing with residents, businesses now have a reason to pay for the parking they need.

Witness and Palisades resident Alma Gates said she'd rather have employees in her neighborhood be able to park on the street. That's fine, if that is what Palisades residents want. Neighborhoods ought to have input into how to allocate on-street spaces. On Capitol Hill, the decision was for residents.

Whoever gets the spaces, having a scheme which rationally divvies them up among users makes much more sense than leaving them first come, first served, then opposing any new development and insisting on big garages just in the vain hope of keeping the demand low. As Wells explained, the demand for on-street spaces has a lot to do with how many people and businesses there are in the neighborhood, and very little to do with the size of garages since people will usually pick the cheap street parking over the pricey garage.

"I strongly want to protect neighborhood parking in the District of Columbia," Wells said, but "I am not sure [parking minimums] will protect neighborhood parking in the District of Columbia." He's right: we need to fix on-street parking with better on-street parking regulations. Lowering minimums won't really help or hurt the on-street situation. There's no reason to hang onto that outdated policy tool when it's not working.

You can watch the entire 10-minute exchange between Wells and the opponents:

Public Safety

Young kids try to assault me while biking

While I was riding Capital Bikeshare home through Capitol Hill last night, a 12-year-old girl and a group of other kids tried to assault me.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

I'm totally fine. The police caught the girl, and her mother promised to take action. Will this experience get the girl to shape up before she gets a criminal record that could impair her future?

I was taking the Green Line home from work. We arrived at the Anacostia station, and the train doors were held open for over ten minutes. I decided to leave the station and find another way home.

I hopped on a Capital Bikeshare bike at the station and headed north, across the 11th Street bridge. When I got to the corner of 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, I had to wait for a red light. Four kids were standing on the corner, next to the fence that has been put up around the charred remains of Frager's Hardware Store. There were three girls and one boy, all around the same age (12 or so).

One of the girls approached me and asked for five dollars. I told her I didn't have any cash on me. She looked at the bike and said, "You need money to pay for that, right?"

I told her, "Yes, I use a credit card."

She said, "Credit cards have money on them, give me some!"

The light turned green at that point, and I said, "Sorry, no, I have to go."

As I started across Pennsylvania Avenue, she lunged at me, pushed on my backpack, and yelled, "Give me money! Give me money!" a couple times, while the other kids laughed. The events of Tuesday on the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) came to mind, and I turned around to make sure the other kids weren't coming after me. I scolded them and asked if they heard about the MBT assault.

The boy in the group started yelling, "Fuck you! Fuck you! Get the fuck out of my neighborhood!" At this point, I realized I could hurry up and bike away, but I wasn't in the mood to let these kids think they could get away with threatening someone on a bicycle, so I yelled out, "These kids are trying to assault me."

I moved my bicycle to the southwest corner of the intersection (in front of the dry cleaners) and called 911.

A gentleman came out of the dry cleaners and told me that the kids had been causing problems in the past, throwing rocks at the store's windows.

Two officers arrived after about 3 or 4 minutes. I told them what happened, and in which direction the kids went after our encounter. A quick check on the radio and the first officer was able to confirm that a third officer had some kids a block down the street. The second officer went to bring them back.

While she was gone, I spoke with the first officer. She told me that kids in the area were apt to do things like this, and that the children doing this get younger every year. The second officer returned a couple minutes later with a woman in her cruiser. This turned out to be the mother of the girl who had shoved me. The first officer insisted that the young girl be brought back as well, so a couple more awkward minutes passed while the first officer, the girl's mother, and I stood around waiting for the other officer to bring back the girl.

When they returned, the first officer asked the girl to state what had happened. She basically gave the full story, but claimed that she had just touched the bike, and not pushed me. The officers wanted her to apologize to me, which she did, but clearly not in a sincere manner.

The police told the girl she could be charged with both aggravated panhandling and simple assault. The girl's mother quietly told her not to be stupid and to apologize.

The officers stepped aside for a moment, leaving me with the girl and her mother. We stood there awkwardly as a light rain began to fall. The officers then called me over to where they were discussing things, and asked if I wanted to press charges. They were willing to lock the girl up, and told me that there would be a few hours of paperwork, but it was up to me how to proceed.

I told the officers I wanted the girl to learn a lesson, but I wanted to do what they thought was best. They called her over, and had her stand right in front of me. The officers told the girl that I had the power to ruin her life then and there, to give her a criminal record. They told me to tell her what I thought about the whole situation.

I told the girl that I thought what she did was stupid, and there was no reason for her to have done anything more than say hello to me on the street.

The officers jumped in and told her to look me in the eye, stand up straight, stop mumbling, and pay attention. The girl's mother, standing nearby, implored her daughter to listen. The police asked her if she had goals, wanted to go to college, and wanted to get away from the bad influences around her. They reminded her that her attitude and actions were going to damn her to a life of dead-ends.

Finally, I told the girl my name, and offered my hand to shake. She did, and apologized again (personally, it still didn't feel 100% sincere, but I remember how much of a sullen brat I could be at 12 years old myself).

Her mother said she'd be going home and would be on a short leash. I obviously don't know what happened once they got home, but I hope we got some sort of message into the girl's head.

As I got back on the Bikeshare bike to head towards home (yeah, I racked up some fees for having the bike out more than 30 minutes!), I thanked the officers and they apologized for my ruined evening. I told them it was absolutely not their place to apologize, and thanked them for doing a great job.

The officers remarked that, while the girl avoided a criminal record, they had her name and would put her on a "juvenile watch list." If she gets caught causing trouble again, there will be no mercy.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.


Bike to work and school, and much more on the calendar

May is a great month to bike to school or work (and so is every other month!) Tomorrow is the national Bike to School Day, Bike to Work Day is Friday, May 17, and Greenbelt is having a vintage New Deal-themed bike ride later this month.

Photo from WalkBike­To­

Also, there are public meetings to learn about and weigh in on some of the most important questions shaping our communities, like what the Purple Line will look like and how tall buildings should be in DC, a more walkable Route 1 in Fairfax, and Montgomery's Bus Rapid Transit plans, and more.

Here's what's coming up on the Greater Greater Washington calendar:

Purple Line open houses: The Maryland MTA is holding 5 open houses to inform residents about the Purple Line, now looking a lot more likely to actually become a reality. They're tonight (Tuesday) in Silver Spring, Thursday 5/9 in Riverdale, Saturday 5/11 in Langley Park, Tuesday 5/14 in Bethesda, and Wednesday 5/15 at Woodridge Elementary School in Hyattsville. Each is 5-8 pm, except the Saturday one which is 11-2.

Bike to school: If you have children in school and don't bike to school regularly, tomorrow is a great time to try. 17 DC schools are participating, and for the dozen on those which are on Capitol Hill, families can congregate in Lincoln Park for an event featuring Ray LaHood, then form bike trains to the schools. Sandra Moscoso has more on Greater Greater Education.

Walk Route 1: CSG's next walking tour looks at Route 1 in Fairfax, the oft-forgotten highway where big box sprawl has the potential to become eco-friendly, walkable communities. Volunteers will help groups take the bus from Huntington Metro for those arriving by transit. RSVP before it's full!

Height "master plan" meetings: The National Capital Planning Commission and DC Office of Planning are working together on a study that might recommend changes to the federal height limit, or might not. Regardless, the issue is sure to be completely noncontroversial, since as we know nobody ever wants to argue about the height limit. (Kidding.) The first public involvement is next week, with a meeting Monday, May 13, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Petworth Library, and then Saturday, May 18, 10:30-12:30 at the MLK Library by Gallery Place Metro.

Learn about, push for BRT: There's a big hearing on Montgomery County's BRT plans on Thursday, May 16, 6-9 pm in Silver Spring. Can you testify? Also, Montgomery transportation planner Larry Cole will talk about BRT as well as MARC expansion at ACT's monthly meeting Tuesday, May 14, 7:30 pm in Silver Spring.

What's up with Pennsylvania and Potomac? The second public meeting on the intersection at Potomac Avenue Metro is Thursday, May 16, 6:30-8:30 pm at Payne Elementary. Have DDOT and its consultants listened made the early designs even better to walk and bike, or have they gotten worse? We'll find out!

Bike to work: Just a little over a week after Bike to School Day (but much farther down our chronological calendar) is Bike to Work Day on Friday, May 17. Pledge to ride, stop by one of the pit stops around the region, join one of the commuter convoys along popular routes, and support almost all of the event sponsors.

Talk Smart Growth with David Grosso: Ward 3 Vision, the smart growth resident group in upper Northwest DC, is having a meet and greet on Tuesday, May 21, 6:30 pm at Guapo's by the Tenleytown Metro. At-large councilmember David Grosso will be there to hear from you about your vision for a more walkable and vibrant Ward 3 and all of DC.

Roosevelt Ride: Ride around Greenbelt, the New Deal planned community, in your best New Deal-era attire, followed by a picnic. You can also get a free tour of the Greenbelt Museum, which shows how families lived in what was built as working-class housing in 1937. That's Sunday, May 26; the ride starts at 11, the picnic after, and the tours at 1.

Have an event we should consider including on the ? Send them to Please include a URL to a webpage that has the information about your event as well, so that we can link directly to your event.


Ward 6 parents ask for answers on school funding

Schools in Ward 6 have seen tremendous growth in recent years, but some schools are losing funding next year. Many parents came to Mayor Gray's Ward 6 Budget Town Hall last week up in arms about these changes.

Stuart-Hobson Middle School

Enrollment is up, test scores are improving, and wait lists are long for several neighborhood elementary schools. There is growing support for the middle schools, while Eastern HS recently launched a new IB Diploma program and has vast potential.

However, problems with enrollment projections and a new, higher threshold for "small" versus "large" elementary schools dropped several schools into lower funding categories. The most striking example is occurring at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, part of the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools.

Stuart-Hobson gets lower enrollment projection despite a long waiting list

For the FY2013-14 school year, DCPS is projecting that Stuart-Hobson's enrollment will drop to 375 students, 45 students fewer than last year (SY2012-13).

This reduction places Stuart-Hobson below the new "small school" category for middle schools. It means the school stands to lose several staff positions, including, potentially, its foreign language program.

Stuart-Hobson's enrollment declined from 404 students in 2012-13 to 371 students in the current year. The new projection seems to assume that the enrollment will continue to decline. However, there is an easy explanation for this one-time decline.

First, the Capitol Hill Cluster was dramatically restructured when its Montessori program, previously housed at Watkins Elementary School, became a stand-alone program as Capitol Hill Montessori @ Logan. This set off a chain of other changes: 5th grade students moved from Stuart-Hobson MS to Watkins ES, and Ludlow-Taylor ES and JO Wilson ES became part of the Stuart-Hobson feeder pattern. Each change impacted Stuart-Hobson's enrollment.

Second, BASIS DC, a public charter school, opened this year. The opening of this new Charter siphoned off many students who otherwise were likely to have enrolled at Stuart-Hobson. Many students on the rolls Stuart-Hobson for the current school year simply never showed up. It's likely that they had also enrolled at BASIS or other public charter schools and failed to unenroll in a timely manner, preventing Stuart-Hobson from filling those extra seats and meeting its enrollment projections.

Stuart-Hobson has over 100 students on its wait list for admission. It's clear there is demand for the school to have enough students to pass the 400-student threshold that would qualify it for 'large school' status and additional funding.

Chancellor Henderson said at the town hall that DCPS is keeping an enrollment reserve of funds, which they can use to bring additional staff to a school that exceeds its enrollment projection. However, this would happen only if the school exceeds its enrollment capacity in the fall and will not help to avoid the loss of some programs.

Ultimately, if we are to end the enrollment madness, we must better coordinate with public charter schools to prevent families from being counted in both systems. Only this will ensure that we have accurate enrollment projections and budgets that accurately reflect the number of students who will attend every school.

New "small" school threshold hurts elementary schools

Parents also asked about the surprise shift in the standard for what constitutes a "small" school. That shift meant many schools unexpectedly found themselves below the threshold and lost funding.

Chancellor Henderson said that when enrollment projections did not come back as strongly as anticipated, she was forced to find cuts in the budget, and this change was the result. However, it would have been better to find more specific places to make cuts or to phase in programmatic expansions for world languages at the elementary level than hitting many schools across the board.

Henderson also said that this approach would have the least impact on classrooms and instruction. She said that the change to a "small school" would only impact 3 positions, "clerk, business manager, and librarians." This statement is not true across the city.

At Maury Elementary School, in Ward 6, becoming a "small school" not only affected these positions, but also music, art, PE and world language (a new requirement for all elementary schools) and the school's mental health team.

The situation at Maury was exacerbated by a Chancellor Henderson's decision to remove budget autonomy from members of the DC Collaborative for Change. Last night, the Chancellor argued that this decision was driven by budget considerations, despite the fact that Collaborative schools do not receive any additional funding beyond their per-student allocations.

The Chancellor said that DCPS would release a new document in the coming weeks to explain clearly how her budget decisions align with DCPS' Capital Commitment and demonstrate where DCPS is spending its funds.

I look forward to seeing this document, but DCPS should also reexamine the projections for Stuart-Hobson and find ways to ensure the new threshold doesn't hit elementary schools so hard.


Eastern High School tries to reinvent itself with IB program

Eastern High School's slogan is "The Pride of Capitol Hill," but much of its student body doesn't actually live in the neighborhood. This fall the school will begin offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, which it hopes will both benefit its current students and also attract more families who live nearby, including more affluent families.

Photo by the author.

Eastern has an illustrious past that includes a history of champion athletic teams and award-winning musical groups. But beginning in the 1990s the school fell on hard times, churning through 11 principals in 10 years.

DCPS decided to phase out the old Eastern, so that by the 2010-11 school year it had only a 12th grade. In the fall of 2011, after an extensive renovation and the hiring of a new principal, Eastern restarted with only a 9th grade. This year the school also has a 10th grade, and it will keep adding a grade a year until it reaches its full capacity.

The new Eastern has many strengths. The renovated building is beautiful, the faculty is largely young and energetic, and the principal, Rachel Skerritt, is universally admired for her combination of warmth and authority.

The school has a student newspaper and TV station. And, amazingly, its mock trial team recently made it to the finals to compete against Banneker and School Without Walls, both of which are application high schools with four-year student bodies.

But the school, located at 1700 East Capitol Street on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, hasn't yet been able to attract many of the more affluent families living in the charming row houses to its west. 77% of Eastern's 500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 25% need special education services. Nor is its population racially diverse, with 98% of its students African-American.

In recent years, some middle-class and upper-middle-class Capitol Hill families have been enrolling their children in preschool and elementary school at neighborhood public schools. But as their children get older, they begin to depart for private or charter schools or compete for out-of-boundary slots at public schools in Ward 3. By middle school, almost all of them are gone.

Administrators and area parents push for IB program

For the past several years DCPS and some Capitol Hill parents have been working on a plan they hope will entice more families to stay. Two middle schools that are feeders for Eastern, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, have applied for authorization to offer a prestigious international educational program designed for 6th to 10th graders, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years program.

With the rebirth of Eastern, DCPS extended that application to include the 9th and 10th grades at Eastern as well. Bob Smith, the IB manager for DCPS, says that the IB organization probably won't decide on the Middle Years application until the summer of 2015.

At the same time, Eastern applied for a separate IB program, the Diploma program, designed for 11th and 12th grades. Just last week the IB organization granted that application, and this fall the school will begin offering it to a hand-picked group of 18-20 students.

The Middle Years and Diploma programs use similar methods and both aim to inspire creative and analytical thinking, but they're implemented differently. The Middle Years program extends to an entire school, with all teachers and all students participating.

The Diploma program, on the other hand, is limited to a subgroup of students who commit to following a challenging curriculum. Students must learn two foreign languages, take a course on critical thinking called "Theory of Knowledge," and write an "extended essay" on a topic of "global significance." At the end of the program students take exams that are graded by outside examiners, and they receive an IB diploma only if they achieve a minimum score. Students outside the program can take one or more individual IB classes, but they won't get the IB diploma.

Overall, the IB approach stands in marked contrast to the current focus on standardized testing, and it may well appeal to middle-class families. But will it be enough to induce Capitol Hill parents to keep their kids in neighborhood schools?

Joe Weedon, a parent of two children at Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill, is part of a group of 20 or so families who intend to do just that. His children, he says, are "class of 2023 and 2025" at Eastern. But Weedon, who has been involved in bringing the Middle Years IB program to Jefferson and Eliot-Hine, has also had his frustrations. He says that DCPS has failed to stick to its timeline for implementing the Middle Years program and has reneged on some of its budgetary commitments. (Weedon is also a contributor to Greater Greater Education.)

Affluent families would obviously benefit from having the option of sending their kids to what they feel is a high-quality local school. But they might not be the only ones who benefit. Recent research indicates that low-income students do better when they attend schools with high-income peers.

IB program will serve existing students, who aren't the typical IB student body

In any event, Eastern administrators say their primary focus is on the students they have now rather than the ones they might attract. Those are the students who will be starting the rigorous Diploma program this fall.

Many of the schools that offer the program are either private schools or public schools serving affluent suburban populations. One DCPS school, Banneker, offers the Diploma program, but it's an application-only school. Will an IB Diploma program work at a non-selective, high-poverty school like Eastern?

Absolutely, says Bob Smith at DCPS, citing examples in Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit.

But Amy Boccardi, the IB coordinator at Eastern, says that when she saw a video of IB schools at a training session recently, she thought, "Those kids don't look like our kids."

Not that Boccardi was discouraged. Her next thought was, "We're going to have to make a video ourselves and send it to IB," to show that kids like those at Eastern can succeed in the program. Still, the question remains.

And Eastern's challenges continue. With Spingarn High School closing next year, for example, Eastern expects to receive about 50 new students, and it's unclear how easy it will be to integrate them into the student body.

But there are lots of people rooting for the school's success. It has the support of an active alumni association, and a group of local businesses called Companies for Causes has committed to helping the school reach its goal of a 100% graduation rate. Perhaps most important, it has a clear-eyed but inspirational leader in Principal Skerritt.

Whatever Eastern's demographics may become in the long term, here's hoping that by the summer of 2015 there's an IB video featuring a group of graduating Eastern seniors proudly holding their IB Diplomas.

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