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Two D.C. high schools get a New York makeover

After days of frantic blogging on the latest D.C. schools crisis and trading speculation with interested readers, I find it refreshing to visit three educators who are making major changes in two of the city’s lowest-performing high schools. Unlike me and many of the people I exchange comments with, they know what they are talking about.

George Leonard, chief executive officer of the Friends of Bedford Group from New York, with chief financial officer Bevon Thompson, 35, and chief operating officer Niaka Gaston, 34-- sit around a table in the basement of D.C.’s Dunbar High School. The school was so dark and filthy when they first saw it that they cringe at the memory.

Dunbar and Coolidge high schools, both educational disaster areas, are under the command of their consulting company. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee handed them the keys to the two schools because of the rigor and high graduation rates they brought to a small public high school, the Bedford Academy, in a low-income neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Perplexed by D.C. politics, they dismiss some myths that still live in the blogosphere about Rhee’s cut of 380 jobs a few weeks after school started. Neither Rhee nor any other central office personnel told them whom to fire, they say. They were told they would be getting $229 less per pupil than they had expected, but they decided how many employees had to be dismissed to stay on budget, and which ones would get the bad news.

They did not get rid of experienced teachers as part of a Rhee plot to weaken the Washington Teachers Union, as some allege. They protected their classroom slots and instead cut, with regret, administrative and counseling personnel--five at Dunbar and three at Coolidge. Those cuts included a teacher who had already decided to move to Ohio for personal reasons, they say.

They don’t blame any particular person at school headquarters or on the D.C. Council for the sudden cut in their budget. But they still cannot get over the notion that any school district would ever consider cutting staff in the first month of the school year.

“Who does that?!” asks Gaston, a Columbia University graduate who, like Thompson, a Georgetown graduate, first met Leonard when they were his star biology students at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. Gaston’s voice rises. He waves his arms in wonder. They all laugh in astonishment at the stuff being thrown at them in this strange town, D.C.

“They said there was going to be something called an RIF,” Leonard says. “We said, ‘What’s that? Reading Is Fundamental?” No, they were told, it meant Reduction In Force, they would have to cut jobs. In September? Who does that?

Leonard says the city budget cuts forced Rhee's hand. Just as bad, he says, was the disappearance of school system security guards from the Hawk One company, which went out of business at the same time. A new company came in, but the Bedford team had spent weeks building a personal rapport--their favorite management technique--with the Hawk One guards.

They had trained them to help sweep students into class when the bell rang. It worked. The aimless hall wanderers they had seen when they first visited Dunbar and Coolidge were in class. With Hawk One gone, they have to train a new crew.

Still, they are optimistic, because so much at the two schools has changed already. They have strong local support. Dunbar and Coolidge community members came to New York to recruit them, and won a fight with Anacostia High supporters for their services.
At their insistence, Rhee installed classroom walls at Dunbar, whose open-space design was considered insane by everyone. Both schools were thoroughly cleaned. They junked the block schedule that had students in different classes on different days, an invitation to more chaos. The 882 students at Dunbar and the 604 at Coolidge now have seven 45-minute periods a day.

They also picked new principals, Stephen Jackson (whom they brought from New York) at Dunbar and Thelma Jarrett (a D.C. veteran) at Coolidge. With order improving, they are focusing on teaching---setting standards for assessment (they want every class to have a short quiz every day) and helping teachers realize how much good they can do (the Bedford team likes the personal touch, a combination of toughness and fun).

D.C. surprised them. They say they will return the favor.

By Jay Mathews  | October 25, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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Thanks for this article - great evidence that order and classroom instruction CAN occur in high poverty schools with good teachers and competent administrators. No more excuses from the WTF, please.

Posted by: RL67 | October 26, 2009 3:30 AM | Report abuse

Oops, typo - I meant WTU.

Posted by: RL67 | October 26, 2009 3:31 AM | Report abuse

A clear explanation of the why and how of the firings.

I must have missed it in the original reporting.

Posted by: alterego60 | October 26, 2009 7:03 AM | Report abuse

Wow. We needed to send someone to NY to hire a team that would recommend that the school get cleaned and that order be restored? Not exactly rocket science, is it? Something is seriously wrong with that picture.

And again, Jay, you promote the "blame the Council for cutting the budget" theory. Never mind that Chancellor Rhee hired 900 teachers over the summer. I'm guessing that her numbers were wrong, and when it came time to reconcile the books, money was taken away. While the people who were hired from New York recognized the craziness of firing teachers in September, did they notice any incongruency about hiring 900 teachers in the summer and then firing 300 in the fall?

However, the Council does not get a free pass IMHO. They are the ones who pushed for total mayoral control over education, they approved Rhee on very flimsy "evidence" of her abilities as an educator or administrator or supervisor.

Best wishes to those high schools and to all of DCPS, though.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | October 26, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate these erudite comments, and share the view that much more has to happen before Dunbar and Coolidge turn around. The problem is that I only have 720 words of space in a column, not nearly enough to tell what I learned in a two-hour visit and interview at Dunbar. These two schools, and what the Bedford group does with them, will be my project for this school year. I will be back at Dunbar tomorrow to look around some more. The history of the school is interesting, and I will need to do more reporting on it. But it is my impression that Dunbar's glory years were in a different building many decades ago. The building they have now, and that open-space plan, has all the signs of 60s and 70s school architecture fashion. I suspect Rhee and previous superintendents didn't attack it right away because they had so much else to do, and thought they were better off working at the basic problem---teaching reading, writing and math in elementary school-- and hoped success there would produced better prepared high school students. The current Dunbar building looks very modern, but in a bad way. "Just look for a really big building that looks like a prison," said a neighbor, pointing me in the right direction when I made a wrong turn.
I know it seems odd to turn the keys for two schools over to a small group of New Yorkers, but we have lots of data now showing that some school leaders have a knack for this, and have unusual success with certain kinds of schools, no matter what city they are in, as long as they are given free rein to make changes.
I am eager for any inside information anyone with a connection to Dunbar or Coolidge wants to share with me.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 26, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

"Erudite" comments, Jay? Paired with this comment from your column, "Unlike me and many of the people I exchange comments with, they know what they are talking about.", I detect some sarcasm here. Thanks. (sarcasm intended.)

Fair enough, you only have 720 words for your column, and you will do a lot more interviewing and investigating throughout the year to help us learn what is going on at these schools. I look forward to reading those columns.

I probably was wrong in interpreting your title and tone as congratulating the New Yorkers for already "making over" the school, and I was in error in thinking you implied that they have been successful in turning around (or getting ready to turn around) the high schools in a way that no one else in this area could possibly have imagined doing.

Nice theoretical explanation of why you think Rhee and other superintendents didn't attack the Dunbar/Coolidge "issues" before now. Would you mind asking them that question so readers can get an explanation from the horse's mouth, so to speak?

Posted by: dccitizen1 | October 26, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

thanks DC. that's a good question. I will ask it and let you know what I hear.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 26, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: dccitizen1 | October 26, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Perplexed by D.C. politics, they dismiss some myths that live in the blogosphere about Rhee's cut of 380 jobs a few weeks after school started.
No mention that the Washington Post the Sunday after the firings ran an editorial that started the rumor that the firings were to get rid of incompetent teachers.

This editorial was in response to the fact that it was incompetence on the part of Ms. Rhee in mishandling the school budget so badly that it was necessary 6 weeks after the start of the new school year to fire 5 percent of the teachers.

When do we get an article from the Washington Post that in fairness Ms. Rhee should have simply let go the new teachers that were incorrectly hired and had only 6 weeks of experience to make up for such incompetence in handling the school budget.

Incompetence created the problem of over hiring and then incompetence in dealing with the problem caused by the incompetence that created the problem in the first place.

Still not a word from the Washington Post that Ms. Rhee as head of school system is responsible for the school budget and has shown incompetence in this area. No mention either that Ms. Rhee had no administrative experience before becoming the head of the school system and that this is not the first case of administrative incompetence since she became head of the school system.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 26, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

We need to learn to really know what good data is. Yes, the hallways at Dunbar are clean, but is everything really in order? Especially with all the inexperienced folks there. Who is really teaching them? I would not be surprised if Dunbar met AYP or even safe harbor by year's end. The physical structure might look great; what about the internal structure? The student's schedules are still a mess. Some seniors may not even graduate unless things are made up. There are a lot of stakes on test scores and money that the stress will drive people to do crazy things on behalf of students. Jay, take a deeper look, stop writing what appears to be good data. If DCCAS happens like the first DCBAS (sloppy, filling answer sheets out after students took the test), Bedford is going to look really good and maybe more teachers will be fired to increase their management fees to a million. Stop abusing students!I hope to get out of education completely. Oh, no one at Dunbar will tell you what's really is happening behind close doors because they will be fired.

Posted by: thalied | October 26, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

for dccitizen1: I asked the chancellor your good question. She said she could not speak for previous superintendents, but my theory did not conform with the reasons behind the decision making about walls at Dunbar as she saw them. She said the problem was that districts do not like to stray from renovation schedules that are set years in advance. When she asked that the walls be put up now, she was told that since the school was scheduled for a major renovation in a few years, it might be best to wait for that. She said she fought to have the change made right away, and won.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 26, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

A clear explanation of the why and how of the firings.

I must have missed it in the original reporting.

Posted by: alterego60
Ms. Rhee is due to appear before the District council on Thursday.

Ms. Rhee needs to explain how more teachers were hired than could be paid for by the school budget.

Ms. Rhee needs to explain why this situation was not dealt with before the start of the new school year and instead was allowed to disrupt the education of thousands of students and almost the entire school system 6 weeks into the start of the new school year.

Ms. Rhee needs to explain why new teachers with only at the most 6 weeks of experience were not fired instead of firing older teachers and leaving the District open to the liability of possibly numerous expensive law suit based upon age discrimination since higher paid older teachers were fired instead of less paid newly hired teachers.

Hopefully the council will actually get this information.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 26, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

They did not get rid of experienced teachers as part of a Rhee plot to weaken the Washington Teachers Union, as some allege.
Jay, read the Washington Post editorial on the Sunday after the firing.

This editorial stated that fired teachers were all incompetents and hinted at inside information from Ms. Rhee.

Do not blame the teachers and the union of teachers for simply believing what appears in the Washington Post.

It might be better to start asking questions of those who wrote the editorial(s).

The Sunday editorial claims incompetence was the reason for the firing and says the school system can not release the personnel records that would demonstrate the incompetence.

I could not find the Sunday editorial but here is the Saturday editorial.

Dismissals for D.C. Schools
Ms. Rhee's systemwide layoffs, while painful, are a step toward improving the city's classrooms.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
NEW YORK CITY schools are notorious for their rubber rooms, holding tanks for incompetent teachers who are paid full salaries to do nothing. D.C schools don't have rubber rooms but an even worse situation: Bad teachers stay in the classroom. It's a problem too long tolerated by school officials. So, as painful as Friday's layoffs are, D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was right to shake up her instructional force.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 26, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Jay, for asking the question and for reporting back what the chancellor said. Open classrooms never made sense to me. I used to have to teach out in the open in one of those designs (not DCPS), and the situation was made worse because it was a "demonstration" school where visitors were trotted by constantly. Talk about distractions! So, that is a good change for Dunbar.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | October 26, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

As a former staff person of Messrs. Leonard, Gaston and Thompson (Bedford Academy), I can attest to their success rate. You can take this to the bank........Friends of Bedford are serious about what they do and they are darn good at it!! Their passion for education and children is REAL. All doubters will soon see a complete turnaround. They will indeed "return the favor."

Posted by: ptate52 | October 27, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

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