Last Thursday evening at the Donald Hense retirement and birthday celebration I had the honor of sitting next to Linda Moore, the founder and past executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School. I always enjoy catching up with Ms. Moore because she is such a strong and personable leader in our local movement, an achievement symbolized by her 2013 election to the National Charter School Hall of Fame. It has been five years since I interviewed her so I asked her how things were going at her school. “Isn’t the wait list for admission getting up to about 1,000 students?” I asked. No, she replied, it is now grown to 2,000 pupils. The last lottery cycle, Ms. Moore explained, there were that many children for 20 available slots. She added that the Stokes is now considering replication but no decision has been made.
This conversation brings me to the study completed last month by the DC Public Charter School Board which documents how far students travel to attend our schools. It turns out that the distance is not very far. On average kids travel 2.1 miles to class, a statistic that has not changed from the 2014 to 2015 term. The title of the report is “Choosing Quality” but it really could have been called “Keeping Young People Close to Home.” According to Tomeika Bowden, the PCSB communications director, students do not travel farther to attend schools with larger wait lists, nor do charters ranked as Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework draw kids living far away from these institutions.
In other words, as we already knew, parents want their children to attend schools where they live. There could be many reasons for this phenomenon. For instance, there may be a greater sense of community for families when kids from the same geographic areas go to the same school. As Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB, pointed out to me during our conversation, parent schedules may make it extremely difficult for them to travel long distances for the educational needs of their offspring. Finally, it is expensive to commute. While pupils now ride free on buses and Metro, the same benefit is not realized by the adults.
The study’s conclusions say loud and clear that we desperately need quality charters on every street corner. The findings have important implications as to the question of whether there should be a neighborhood admissions preference (there probably should be one on a voluntary basis) and whether we should be concerned about a charter opening in close proximity to a DCPS facility (we should not care). The bottom line here is that if there was a sufficient number of charters a preference for those living nearby would become unnecessary. The supply would meet demand.
Finally, as I’ve called for in the past, we must figure out a way to expand great schools quickly. I don’t know about you but as a parent I think constantly about those that are blocked from having their children attend their preferred site. We pride ourselves in the amount of school choice we have here in D.C., but with wait lists like the one at Elsie Whitlow Stokes, we are really providing no choice at all.