|HOPING FOR TURNAROUND Michelle Rhee is trying to do what six would-be reformers could not: rescue one of the nations most dysfunctional school districts.|
New D.C. schools chief presses for improvement
Bold changes aim to increase accountability
WASHINGTON - Michelle Rhee has closed 23 schools, fired more than 30 principals, and given notice to hundreds of teachers and administrative workers.
Just a year on the job, the chancellor of the District of Columbia Schools is making bold changes as she tries to accomplish what six would-be reformers in the past decade could not: rescue one of the nation's most dysfunctional school districts.
The hard-charging schools chief is unwavering in her belief that she can succeed. "My goal is to make D.C. the highest performing urban school system in the country," Rhee said as she prepared for the start of classes today.
It is an audacious task for Rhee, the founder of a teacher-training organization who had no experience running even a single school when she arrived.
Rhee is an unconventional choice in other ways. The Korean-American is the first D.C. schools chief in nearly four decades who is not black. And at 38, the Ivy-League educated educator is one of nation's youngest leaders of a big urban school district.
She wants to fix a great injustice: the inability of America's public schools to educate students equally - particularly in the nation's capital.
Like many urban schools, Washington's are struggling to educate students amid poverty and violence. Students also have suffered because of incompetent bureaucracy and fiscal mismanagement, critics say.
Although the district is among the nation's highest-spending school systems, its students rank near the bottom in reading and math proficiency. Schools have leaky roofs and broken fire sprinklers. Bathrooms are decrepit, with broken toilets and missing stall doors.
Not surprisingly, enrollment in the 49,000-student system is shrinking as parents move their children to charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated.
"People want Michelle Rhee to succeed because no one knows what's going to happen if she doesn't," said Mary Levy, who has been actively involved in the schools since her children enrolled in the 1970s.
Levy is wary, though. She has seen school chiefs arrive with great fanfare only to leave in exasperation. Army Lieutenant General Julius Becton Jr. was tapped in 1996 by a presidentially appointed board. He quit after 18 months.
Urban education advocates such as Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, blame the mess in part on a power struggle between local politicians, Congress, and community activists.
This time will be different, Rhee believes, thanks to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who made school reform his top priority when he was elected in 2006. Fenty seized control of the schools, doing away with the school board. He also won the power to hire and fire the superintendent. He tapped Rhee, founder of the New Teacher Project, which trains teachers to work in urban schools.
Rhee is convinced that a motivated teacher can help even the most disadvantaged student achieve. She said her belief is shaped by three years of teaching in Baltimore.
Rhee has streamlined Washington's central office by firing nearly 100 employees. She dismissed 36 principals she considered ineffective. She also sent termination letters to 750 teachers and teacher's aides who missed a summer certification deadline.
Rhee's approach has its critics. The decision to close 23 under-enrolled schools was particularly controversial; some parents accused her of rushing the process.
"Anyone who raises concern is labeled as being for the status quo," said Crystal Sylvia, a D.C. schools social worker whose son is entering kindergarten.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the revolving door of superintendents is demoralizing.
The D.C. Council, which approved Fenty's school takeover plan, has said it was not being consulted on decisions and has held up money for school repairs.
Still, Rhee can point to some momentum. Recent test scores show the number of schools making adequate progress in math and reading under the federal No Child Left Behind law increased from 31 to 47 - or about one-third of the school system.
Some say the credit lies with reforms by Rhee's predecessor. Rhee attributes the change to accountability, something she is hoping to improve by linking teacher pay to student achievement.