Bad old D.C. school politics threaten progress
The first test of soon-to-be mayor Vincent Gray’s effort to maintain the momentum of D.C. school improvement went well. He said all the right things after being elected and put on his education transition committee people closely associated with the city’s most successful public schools.
The second test, his handling of accusations of lax security at Dunbar High School, is less impressive so far. Instead of supporting the talented and proven administrators from New York who had made great strides on that troubled campus, Gray has let disgruntled parents and educators make political points for their side that threaten the academic progress at Dunbar, and has tossed in an unhelpful negative statement of his own.
I sympathize with interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who has to deal with this mess. In an email to me yesterday, she seemed to deny any intention of criticizing the Friends of Bedford group, which runs both Dunbar and Coolidge high schools. Henderson knows that last year the portion of students testing proficient or advanced in reading went from 18.2 percent to 31.9 percent at Dunbar and from 38 percent to 53.6 percent at Coolidge. No other high schools in the city came close to making such gains in a subject where improvement has been rare.
As I have said many times, it is not a good idea to put too much emphasis on just one year's test score gains. But it is also not rational to try to fire the managers of the schools who have accomplished that feat, at least until you see how they do next year. Yet that is what may happen at Dunbar. Some disgruntled teachers, former staffers and parents are trying to persuade Henderson, and Dunbar alumnus Gray, that despite their success, the Bedford group should go.
The latest triumph in the campaign to send the New York educators home was the announcement that, as my colleague Bill Turque summarized it, "Dunbar Senior High School will get new administrators and extra security this week to quell violence and disorder, two years after the school was placed under a private management team by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee."
Bedford group leader George Leonard says there is no data to suggest that the security situation at Dunbar, a problem for several decades, has gotten worse in the last few months. Two weeks ago, six students were arrested and charged with raping a 15-year-old girl in an unoccupied area of the school in Northwest, but those charges have been dropped.
There is no question that the school has a security problems. I have spent some time there in the last two years, watching the Bedford group try to bring it under control. It is one of the worst designed school buildings I have ever seen. It goes up several stories via narrow stairways. An assortment of nooks and crannies make order difficult to maintain. The Bedford group leaders say they have been asking for more security for some time, so Henderson's order to send in "more security and youth engagement resources," as she puts it, is in one way an answer to their prayers.
But it also conveys the message that people who don't like Leonard's team can more easily resist the higher academic standards he is trying to instill at the school since his administration is under a cloud. Teachers are complaining about their recent classroom evaluations. D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.--who says he has no opinion on the Bedford group--is enumerating reported incidents of disruption.
The Bedford contract with the city is up at the end of the school year. Its chances for renewal look bleak---another triumph of the old D.C. personal school politics over the effort to give students the challenging and engaging educations they deserve.
Having seen the progress at Dunbar, I was stunned to get an uncertain answer from Gray when I asked him in October about his old school. "There are people who were very enthusiastic in the beginning," he said. "[The Bedford executives] have a good track record for what they've done in New York [establishing a relatively high-achieving public school in Brooklyn]. Now, more and more, I'm hearing people raising questions about it. . . . You hear from a lot of people about the disruption, the disorder, kids wandering around the building."
All of those complaints are true, but still deceiving without comparing the situation now to that before the Bedford group took over. Disruption and wandering have become part of the D.C. high school culture. Rooting it out takes time. I asked Thomas, who is talking about Dunbar disruption reports, if he had any comparative figures from the past, and he said no.
Gary spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said the mayor-elect “is counting on Interim Chancellor Henderson to work together with Dunbar school administrators, teachers and parents to ensure that what is best for the students, first and foremost, is taking place at the school, and that Dunbar moves forward in keeping with his plans to continue aggressive school reform in all District of Columbia public schools.”
Henderson, whom all sides in the dispute seem to have high regard for, has refrained from reaching conclusions without facts, although her statements have been far from a ringing endorsement of what the Bedford group has done. "I have said nothing of changing the administration at this point," she told me yesterday. "All I have said so far is that the safety and security issues at Dunbar require an intervention. I haven't yet said anything about Friends of Bedford."
Nobody in their right mind would mess with the increased support of Dunbar teachers and aggressive after-school tutoring that raised the portion of students testing proficient in reading. But just raising doubts about Bedford's management is enough to make the job harder. If Henderson voids the contract, we are back to the beginning, trying again to find someone to run Dunbar, and probably getting few takers with the talent and experience to do it, given what happened to Bedford.
Leonard appointed himself principal at Dunbar this year to develop more personal relationships with the students and refine security measures. His team leaders made progress their first year in getting the private security company officers assigned to them trained in flushing students from hiding places and getting them into class. Then that company went out of business and they had to start over.
Henderson and her staff investigated the situation at Bedford’s other school, Coolidge, and had no complaints, Leonard said. That underlined the likelihood that what is happening at Dunbar has more to do with the local political situation (and the much better design of Coolidge's building) than any deficiency in what Bedford has been trying to do.
I suspect this is just a brief stumble. Gray and Henderson are first-rate people who know what our schools need -- leaders who understand good teaching and can create school climates to make that happen. The future of the Bedford group will be a useful indicator of whether the new mayor and his chancellor can continue to follow their best instincts, or go back to the old ways of running D.C. schools.
| December 7, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Coolidge High School, Dunbar High School, Friends of Bedford group, George Leonard, Kaya Henderson, Vincent Gray, local community opponents of Bedford ignore academic progress, rape charged at Dunbar, situation called chaotic
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