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Promises for Eastern High School Draw Skepticism From Some in the Community

D.C. officials unveiled their proposal last night to convert Eastern High School into specialized "academies" focused on health sciences and pre-law. But the reaction from parents, staff and alumni, hardened by years of abortive reform efforts, ranged from noncommittal to hostile.

The District is gradually phasing out the current incarnation of Eastern, one of 10 District high schools under a federal mandate to overhaul its programs because of consistently poor academic performance. The school is closed to ninth-graders this year, and DCPS plans to re-open with a redesigned building and rebooted curriculum in the fall of 2010.

DCPS envisions the reconstituted Eastern as a community of smaller academies, one focused on health sciences--including both pre-med courses and careers in the health industry--and another possibly specializing in law, government and international policy.

Last night officials held the first of an elaborate series of community meetings and small group discussions at the school, aimed at collecting ideas about what the new Eastern should be.

A team of DCPS officials, headed by public engagement chief Peggy O'Brien (a former Eastern teacher) and instructional superintendent John Davis, told an audience of more than 100 that the school was essentially theirs to reimagine. But more than a few in the audience thought that the District's outreach was merely a dog-and-pony show designed to steer them into what is already a done deal. One exercise led by school staff in small discussion groups: "List the words that you would like people to use to describe Eastern high students at Eastern in 2012."

The effort struck some as wheel-spinning.

"Decisions have been made and not advertised in the community. You're orchestrating the process," said Darwin Ross, 37, a member of Eastern's robust and well-organized alumni association. Asked later what decisions he was referring to, he couldn't say.

District officials emphasized that everything is on the table.

"It's not a done deal," Davis told the group. "And if you don't want an academy, we've got to hear that."

James Preston, head of the alumni group, said he believes that Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and DCPS are well-intentioned, but facing a difficult mix of racial and generational politics along with historic mistrust of the school system. He said some African Americans suspect that whites in the gentrifying Capitol Hill neighborhood want to "take over" Eastern. He also said Rhee's hard-charging style, and her troubled relationship with the Washington Teachers' Union, have given the school community pause.

"The labor situation has given people the idea that the Chancellor wants to ramrod things through," said Preston, 62, a 1965 Eastern graduate. He added: "I think she has fresh ideas and creativity. I think her heart is in the right place."

Bill Turque

By Marcia Davis  |  February 5, 2009; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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So the whites want to take over Eastern? That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Look at other gentrfying areas of the city. White parents haven't flocked to Tubman in Columbia Heights, nor Reed in Adams Morgan or Bancroft in Mount Pleasant. As for high schools, they rather roll over and play dead than send their kids to practically any DC public high school except maybe Wilson, Banecker or School Without Walls. And if they did, wouldn't the better programs be good for everyone?

Posted by: chelita | February 5, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Chelita You may want to learn how to spell what you are speaking of before you speak on negatives regarding DC Schools, it's Banneker, as in Benjamin Banneker noted Afircan American scientist, mathematician, astronomer. What high school did you attend?

Posted by: rcwynn01 | February 5, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

rcwynn01 - I wish you hadn't pointed out a simple spelling error and wonder if you have anything substantive to say.

Posted by: efavorite | February 5, 2009 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Students at Eastern, as do students all over DC, deserve special programs. However, in scant economic times it is doubtful rhee plans to spend substantive amounts of money bringing programs into any school nor has she to date, except of course adding resources to the school her own children attend -- Mr. Turque, check the budget and then compare it to a current staff roster and you'll see what people are talking about. This is likely another public relations campaigns to take attention from the contract impasse she has caused as well as other union busting activities or, as the article suggests, attempting to lull the community into thinking these programs were their idea when the money has already been (doubtlessly) haphazardly spent.

I agree with Mr. Preston that rhee's attitude, demeanor, candor and style have given the community pause. I add that her style masks an obvious lack of accomplishment over her tenure and note that it is her style and leadership that alienate so many people she is supposed to serve. Her biggest success thus far is firing people and creating havoc in the name of reform. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Preston that her heart is in the right place. I would characterize her as heartless and her fresh ideas have been tried by her friends like Kevin Johnson -- and failed. According to the Sacramento Bee, his ideas have taken him to bankruptcy, so how much do those 'fresh ideas' cost and what will be the long-term cost to DC school children? See story below:

Source webpage:

But the legal question may be moot. St. HOPE Development, which owns the 40 Acres complex and Primo's Swiss Club, is in financial straits and can barely afford to make its own debt payments, Brown said.

I would love to see data that would prove me wrong. In God DC should trust while all others have to bring data. People like rhee should bring data.

Posted by: southyrndiva | February 6, 2009 6:07 AM | Report abuse

Read the story and pay close attention to the comments!

Posted by: southyrndiva | February 6, 2009 6:47 AM | Report abuse

Many times I've skirted the issue of a general anti-white (or in Rhee's case a sort of outsider) bias in DCPS, but rarely has the Post printed it so plainly. Frankly, white parents are often treated pretty badly by long-term DCPS teachers (more often teacher's aides or lesser staff) who can't seem to understand it's not 1989 and some other parents whose POVs I don't understand.

Even Chelita, who suggests that the "white takeover" of Eastern is dumb does so by citing schools in mixed neighborhoods that haven't been "taken over." --- ok, she does suggest that the better programs would be good for everyone which tempers it, but isn't the right answer that all people bought houses in DC knowing that it's a tightly integrated community and all DC kids, regardless of their parents' educational levels deserve to be taught at the same level as Sidwell/Holton/GDS/St Johns?

No one has really commented on how alienating it is for a parent with a graduate degree criticized for higher expectations of teachers based not on the merits of the argument, but on the perceptions of racism and outsiderism. How did it ever possibly occur that ethnic or local pride is connected to low school achievement and bad study skills? That isn't a point of pride and Eastern today is not a point of pride, but really a shame. Why would parents, and I've heard this multiple times, distrust special programs and PTA efforts as an attempt to "take over" (aka integrate!) a taxpayer-funded facility? Is the love of a 1980s-era segregated DC so strong that children's academic improvements are feared? Aren't both Obama and Fenty from integrated families?

Posted by: bbcrock | February 6, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse


I think, and this is just my belief, that what parents fear is that these wonderful programs being offered won't really be for them. After all, how can Rhee implement the programs with the current staff and students of a high school that couldn't even manage to complete a schedule of classes and room assignments several years ago. Parents in a lot of these schools have a history of poor performance and inadequate support to remind them that they are not at the top of anyone's list downtown. So, now they are going to get state-of-the-art? Exactly what good will these programs (admirable programs to say the least)do if nothing is in place currently that can provide the support necessary for the success of these ideas? This is Rhee's dilemma: she wants to make sweeping changes without fixing the deeper, systemic problems. These problems, unfortunately for us all, take time fix and require patience and tenacity - something that most politicians (and despite avowals to the contrary, Rhee is a politician) cannot invest in.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | February 7, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I think that this article is too slanted to one point of view. I don't want to have the appearance that everyone is dissatisfied with what is occurring. I am not; I think that it is better now than never. Also, I think that there are a minimal few (all living in Maryland and VA) who know nothing of the unity in my community, who have made statements to the press about the black and white issue and have "blown" them out of proportion. Some current alumni do not speak for many of the alumni in their perceptions nor does he speak at all for the current or future parents who's children either attend or will attend Eastern SHS.

I think that we are a community of dedicated, driven and compassionate individuals who can roll up our sleeves and get this done in the timeline allocated.

I don't want to lose the momentum that everyone involved seemed to have, at least in the room that I was in. Sometimes in this city, the positive gets bogged down in the negative and I don't want that to overshadow the forward motion that is driving this Restructuring initiative.

In future we need to come with an already laid out agenda of our own. Each of us knows or now has the emails of those who will be involved and we need to be, within the next week or two emailing our plans and points of view to the focus group leaders and holding them accounting in making sure that these ideas are presented at each meeting.

If we lead the charge, then we can steer the direction of this Restructuring.

Posted by: lacairaine | February 9, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

This piece clearly does not give a true, or comprehensive, account of what occured during the session at Eastern last week. The crowd was diverse, perhaps the most diverse gathering I've seen at a DCPS school outside of the usual uptown schools in quite sometime. However, there was tremendous synergy and by all accounts, EVERYONE wants the same amazing school with a rigorous academic program, an abundance of opportunies supported by a state-of-the-art facility. This isn't a black or white issue but a human issue in the interest of doing what's best for our children. If nothing else, that is what should have been reported here. No one can dispute that Eastern will eventually be as diverse as Wilson High School. In fact, most of the community celebrates and embraces this. And, for those who couldn't elaborate on a "seemingly" behind- -the-scenes plan, that should give pause about their "seemingly" non-involvement until the 11th hour. Those who are in the fight for a new and wonderful Eastern know that there's a core group of diverse community members representing the past, present and future of Eastern. I'm looking forward to the PRIDE returning back to the Pride of Capitol Hill!

Posted by: hrhjcg | February 9, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

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