Is turmoil at Hardy driving families away?
There are early signs that the lingering feud over Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's decision to replace Hardy Middle School principal Patrick Pope may be driving away the very families she sought to attract with the leadership change: those in the "feeder" elementary schools in Northwest D.C.
Rhee announced late last year that Pope, creator of the arts and music program that draws a majority African-American student body to the newly-renovated Georgetown school, would be replaced in June by Dana Nerenberg, principal of nearby Hyde-Addison Elementary. Rhee said she made the change to more firmly establish Hardy's identity as a neighborhood school despite its application process, which she describes as a source of confusion for local families. The plan is for Pope to begin planning a middle school arts magnet. Nerenberg will run both Hardy and Hyde-Addison, underscoring the continuity between Hardy and its surrounding feeders.
Some African American parents at Hardy believe Rhee is trying to change the demographics of the school, a charge she denies. They've taken their demand for Pope's reinstatement to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. Hardy students and teachers have marched on the Wilson Building.
Parent leaders told Rhee at a meeting Tuesday morning that the turmoil is clearly having an impact. They said that according to school data, applications filed with the school for admission to the sixth grade -- the school's entry level -- have declined sharply: from 162 at this time last year to 30 as of Monday morning.
More striking is the number of applications they said have been received from the approximately 150 fifth grade families families at its official feeder schools, Hyde-Addison, Key, Stoddert and Eaton: zero. Last year about 35 percent of fifth graders from the feeders entered Hardy, most of the rest opting for Deal, Washington Latin charter school or other charters or parochial schools.
"Clearly the removal of Mr. Pope has hurt the program," said Keenan Keller, chairman of the panel of parents, staff and administrators known as an LSRT (Local School Restructuring Team). He called the data "breathtaking."
Interviews with some elementary school parents Tuesday echo Keller's assessment.
Sherry Woods, who has a fourth grader at Eaton and two children at Hardy, said the turbulence at the top has given parents pause. There is also concern about having a principal running two schools.
"I don't want a principal who's got her feet in two doors," said Woods. "One of those learning environments is going to be grossly impacted. Bottom line, it ill be the middle school."
"There are a lot of concerns about the transition Rhee is imposing," said Allan Assarson, who has a third grader at Key and a sixth grader at Hardy. He said Key parents are concerned about faculty following Pope out the door.
But out-of-boundary interest in Hardy remains robust. In the on-line lottery that closed Sunday, 175 families put in bids for sixth grade seats. The sixth grade application deadline is March 31, and Rhee says it's too early to tell what the final enrollment picture will look like. "We would have to wait until the application deadline to have data that is really meaningful," she said in an interview after the meeting.
Rhee is also locked in a dispute with the LSRT over the role of the lottery, and their differences took up the bulk of the 70-minute session at Hardy.
Pope has used an application process (a student letter, a teacher recommendation, and the most recent report card) along with school visits to fill his incoming sixth grade classes. Pope and Keller cite a 2003 decision by the old Board of Education designating Hardy a "special program" as the basis for application system, which they said exists only as a device to become more familiar with a student's needs, and not as a way to exclude.
Families within Hardy's attendance boundaries are guaranteed spots. Rarely, Pope has said, has an out-of-boundary family that completed the application process been denied admission. As a practical matter, it hasn't been an issue; Hardy has been under-enrolled for years.
But Rhee wants Hardy to draw out-of-boundary students from the lottery and then require them to complete the application as a condition of admission. Keller, an attorney for the House Judiciary Committee, cites a section of the D.C. Municipal Regulations that provides for a "back end" lottery only if there are more applicants than seats available.
Rhee doesn't agree, and says the lottery can better guarantee fairness and equal access. "I actually believe that what we want to create here is a process where any family, regardless of where they live, as long as they fulfill the requirements of the application, have an equal opportunity," she said.
The meeting ended, more or less, at an impasse.
"We've explained to you what the blowback is here, and you don't seem to get it," Keller said to Rhee, declaring her "not in compliance" with D.C. law.
"I disagree," she said.
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