Where Have All the 4th Graders Gone?

The start of the school year at Tyler Elementary School found my daughter’s 5th grade class with four fewer students than they’d had in 4th grade. Her four classmates had left Tyler after 4th grade to attend a public charter school. I wanted to find out if something similar was happening at other DCPS elementary schools so I asked the elementary school principals in Ward 6 about their 5th grade enrollments.

The loss of students in 5th grade varied across the schools. The hardest hit was Brent Elementary, a highly sought after school on Capitol Hill. Brent saw almost 60% of their 4th grade students (26 students) leave after 4th grade to attend a charter school. Capitol Hill Montessori@Logan saw ten 4th grade students leave to attend a charter school (50% of their 4th grade class). Maury Elementary saw 14 4th grade students (26% of their 4th grade) leave to attend a charter school. The impact was less at other schools. For example, J.O. Wilson saw five students leave after 4th grade (10% of their 4th grade class).

A disconnect exists between the grade levels for most of the public charter schools and the DC public schools. The DC public schools start middle school at 6th grade, but most DC public charter schools start middle school at 5th grade. Scott Pearson, the Executive Director of the DC Public Charter School Board, provided some insights for this disconnect. According to Mr. Pearson, there are three reasons the public charter middle schools start at fifth grade.  The first is that the public charter schools “feel the need to begin preparing students earlier for more rigorous middle school type work, including classrooms based on subject rather than most subjects taught by the homeroom teacher(s).”  The second is fifth grade seems a more appropriate time for students to enter middle school because “students mature physically earlier these days.”  The final reason is an administrative one. In some cases, the size of the charter’s school building might allow a middle school to have four grades, i.e., 5th – 8th. In other cases, the public charter school has an elementary school that feeds into a middle school, and they try to divide responsibilities more evenly between the elementary school and middle school principal.

I asked the Ward 6 principals what impact the loss of 5th grade students had on their schools. At the schools that lost the most students, the principals said the losses were “very significant” or “significant”. The principal who said the loss was significant explained that “all of the students who were enrolled in charters were performing at a proficient or advanced level.” The loss of these students “creates a serious unbalance with the class.” All of the schools were able to meet their projected enrollments primarily by admitting more students at the lower grade levels.

While the losses aren’t as significant, even within DCPS there appears to be jockeying to get into sought after middle schools. Ludlow-Taylor Elementary, Watkins Elementary and J.O. Wilson Elementary feed into Stuart Hobson Middle School. Stuart Hobson students scored highest in the city on the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) and the iReady (math) tests in school year 2014/2015. Watkins, J.O. Wilson, and Ludlow-Taylor all saw new students enroll at 5th grade, presumably in order to guarantee them a seat at Stuart Hobson in 6th grade.

One of the rarely talked about benefits of being a 5th grader in an elementary school is what I call the “big man (or woman) on campus” benefit. I asked my daughter what she thought the benefits were to being a 5th grader at Tyler this year, and she said “I’m going to get more difficult responsibilities because I’m older and the teachers expect more of me.”   When you’re a 10-year old, feeling like you’re the “big kid” has advantages in your emotional development that may not be measureable, but are undoubtedly important.

It seems to me this disconnect between the starting grades for the DC public middle schools and the public charter middle schools should be examined. It is causing impacts that some DC public school principals believe are significant. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the public charter middle schools like BASIS DC or Washington Latin or Howard’s Middle School of Mathematics and Science need to begin preparing students earlier, i.e., at 5th grade, for middle school work. While there have been some studies showing children are maturing more rapidly than ever before, primarily believed to be because of better nutrition over the past century, this hardly seems to be reason enough to start middle school at 5th grade. In fact, a 2008 working paper by Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy actually showed 6th graders who were in elementary schools outperformed 6th graders who were in middle schools, and that 6th graders in middle schools had increased behavior problems.

The Deputy Mayor for Education is about to embark on a Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force that will be looking at how to improve the coherence of public education in DC for families and increase the collaboration across DC Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter school sectors to improve effectiveness, efficiency, and student outcomes. The disconnect between the starting grade level for the public charter middle schools seems to be an issue the Task Force should address.

And I might add that my daughter says she’s already looking forward to her 5th grade graduation ceremony! Something her peers who left for public charter middle schools will never get to experience.

Suzanne Wells

10 thoughts on “Where Have All the 4th Graders Gone?

  1. I suggest that it is the availability of DCPS middle schools and the lottery/boundary system that drives parents to start the process of finding a good school in 4th grade, and then repeating in 5th grade if unsuccessful. Charter schools have exploited, consciously or not, that failing, by offering an early option. While DCPS’s elementary schools have come a long way, its middle school options are still lacking and the charters are filling those gaps. It wasn’t to get a jump on early education that led me to enroll my daughter in a charter in 5th grade, but luck in the lottery system that gave me a sought-after spot in an excellent charter school. Believing I would never repeat that luck the next year I opted my daughter out of 5th grade in her DCPS. I’m sure that many parents every year are weighing their options when looking at the available middle options and finding them lacking.


  2. Another reason that charters start at 5th grade is that DCPS schools have only recently been aligned so that elementary goes through 5th, and high school starts in 9th. When my son started at Washington Latin after attending Watkins, Watkins ended at 4th grade. When it came for my daughter to attend Latin we had her finish 5th at her elementary and then transfer in. Academically she had no problems adjusting to the more rigorous environment, but socially it was challenging. Groups had already been established. Were I doing it again, I probably would have had her start in 5th grade. I do agree with you though. I would prefer that the charters align with the DCPS schools so that the kids could finish out their elementary school years.


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