Jun 17, 2022 - News

New D.C. high school fight in Palisades

A sign opposing a new school at Hardy Park
A sign from 2021 opposes plans for a new school to be built at Hardy Park. Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Most D.C. neighborhoods might be ecstatic about a new public school going up down the block. The placid, moneyed westernmost enclave of Ward 3 is not like most D.C. neighborhoods.

What’s happening: This year, the city approved a plan to put a 1,000-student high school on MacArthur Boulevard in the Palisades and a new 550-student elementary school in nearby Foxhall.

  • The plans were a victory for outgoing Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh and parent advocates who’d long pushed to alleviate overcrowding at their highly sought-after public schools, particularly Jackson-Reed.
  • The high school formerly known as Wilson is so desirable that 38% of its student body comes from other parts of the city.

But a sudden shift in the race for Cheh’s seat and an outcry with NIMBYish undertones from neighbors have upended the plans, as the remaining top three contenders all want to rethink the city’s proposals — and likely nix a Foxhall school.

Why it matters: So many District families have settled in Ward 3 — precisely because of the reputation of its schools — that the ward needs at least four new public schools, according to an often-cited 2019 report from parents. Changes to the plans for more schools would also reverberate beyond Ward 3, where many families across the city send their children.

Details: Ward 3 candidate Matt Frumin prefers a smaller high school on MacArthur with fewer out-of-boundary children and says, “We should consider every other possible solution” before Foxhall.

  • Eric Goulet completely opposes a school at Foxhall. He prefers the city explore using the MacArthur site as an elementary and/or middle school instead.
  • Phil Thomas says the size of the MacArthur high school should be reconsidered and doesn’t want a Foxhall school, despite the fact that he is backed by allies of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who wants the two schools.

Zoom in: Officials expect that half of the MacArthur high school — 500 students — would commute from across the city. Citywide critics question the wisdom of sending students on long commutes in a transit desert. Neighborhood opponents have a far more prosaic beef: traffic nightmares.

  • And many are bitter about the Foxhall proposal because they believe they’d have to sacrifice green space at Hardy Park for the building.

The other side: Council member Cheh blasts the three candidates for jeopardizing sorely needed progress.

  • “To me, what they’re doing is pandering,” Cheh told Axios. “But when they get in office, and they have to confront the reality of serious, serious overcrowding in Ward 3, then I think the public should say to them, ‘OK, fellas, now what?’”

Between the lines: For families in parts of the District without high-performing schools, the NIMBYism might come off as a luxury. After all, many Palisades residents and their wealthy neighbors send their kids to private schools.

But there are progressive leaders citywide who also object, believing the solution is to improve schools in underserved communities. Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 education board representative, supports about 750 seats at MacArthur, and says that other students across the city “would be well served in a quality neighborhood school” of their own.

But a smaller school would also offer fewer seats to students outside Ward 3, reducing the diversity of its future student body.

At Jackson-Reed High School, Burleith neighborhood commissioner Kishan Putta says, “every parent I spoke to says it has gotten too crowded, but one of the best things about it is the diversity.” DCPS stats show that 38% of its students are white, 30% are Black, and 23% are Hispanic.

  • He says a 1,000-student school at MacArthur “could be in the interests of our city.”

What’s next: The new D.C. Council will determine the future of the schools. Mayor Bowser defended the current plans in an interview after casting her ballot on Thursday in Brookland, but acknowledged changes appear likely given the candidates running to succeed Cheh.

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