Teacher tribute a graceful transition
Monday night's "Standing Ovation" for top D.C. teachers was an uncommonly hopeful and graceful event for a school district where politics and uncertainty about the future have dominated the news.
"I feel like I'm at the Academy Awards, this is so exciting," said Kaya Henderson, interim chancellor for one more night, so stoked as she stood behind the podium at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall that she sounded as though she was about to thank her agent. Music from Chrisette Michele and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl lifted the event to another level.
But it was Henderson who embodied the celebratory spirit of the evening, singling out embattled Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker for praise even as they scuffle over the terms and conditions of the performance bonuses awarded to the 662 "highly effective" teachers honored Monday. She also thanked Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for the opportunity to serve as her deputy, then added:
"I thank you for the new opportunity, I think."
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) came on stage together, arms raised in unity. Gray reiterated his promise that there would be "no deviation from school reform in the District of Columbia."
The program was built around award presentations to seven teachers singled out for especially distinguished work: Angela Benjamin ( Wilson H.S.), Roaenetta Mayes Browne (Sharpe Health School), Sylvia Ewing ( Kelly Miller), Charles Feeser (Banneker), Deborah Flanagan (Barnard), Iver Ricks (Burrville) and Maria Samenga (Tubman). Each was the subject of a short video produced by Robin Smith of Video/Action, showing them in their classrooms. Especially moving were scenes of Browne, who works every day with profoundly disabled children at Sharpe.
The evening represented an inspiring spotlight on teaching in a city where the winnowing out of instructors deemed ineffective has often dominated the narrative. D.C. State School Board member Sekou Biddle said a turn of the page was long overdue.
"No one wants to come work for a school system that's always talking about its bad teachers," he said.
But if the evening signaled a transition in tone and leadership, it also underscored the growing influence of private money in public education -- led by many funders who support changes in teacher pay and evaluation that are still subject to considerable debate.
The event was organized as a fundraiser by the D.C. Public Education Fund -- the nonprofit fundraising arm of the school system -- and sponsored by a group of corporations and nonprofits that are frequent contributors to local education causes, including CityBridge, McKinsey & Co., Mark David Ein, Verizon, Marriott and Alice and David Rubenstein, the latter being the co-founder and managing director of the Carlisle Group, the giant private equity firm.
The D.C. Public Education Fund, which says it plans to raised $100 million by September 2012, wants to make the tribute an annual event. It will be interesting to see the lay of the land in D.C. education when it comes time for the 2011 "Standing Ovation."
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