Was Friends of Bedford ready for Dunbar?
As promised, DCPS moved Monday to bolster safety and security at Dunbar High School, which officials say has suffered from a lack of both under Friends of Bedford, the outside operator hired by former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
The package includes additional police presence, more experienced school security guards, and extra administrative types from the school system's central office. A team of social workers met with every English class (to make sure they covered all students) to talk about sexual behavior and respect in the wake of the alleged assault that took place at the school last month.
On Wednesday, Bedford CEO George Leonard, also acting principal, will meet with interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson to discuss "next steps."
Leonard and his colleagues say they've done exactly what they set out to do: begin to change the culture of failure at the school, once the pride of black Washington. My colleague Jay Mathews, a big fan of Bedford, agrees, and says that ousting the group would be a victory for disgruntled parents and ex-staffers.
Henderson clearly doesn't like what she sees at Dunbar, but has also been reluctant to support her criticism with data. School leaders from the Rhee family tree love data, and keep it in a thousand different permutations. I've made two requests and have yet to get a response.
At a minimum, Bedford's experience points up the extreme difficulty of high school turnarounds--especially involving operators who try to transplant their success into new soil in a different city. Rhee selected Leonard's group on the basis of their five years at Bedford Academy, a highly-regarded Brooklyn public school with an unstinting emphasis on college preparation.
But Leonard faced a significantly different situation in D.C. When I visited Dunbar Tuesday, I asked him whether he'd taken on more than he could handle.
"You always know more once you start," he said. "Now that I know the dynamics, I would have approached it differently."
Leonard built Bedford from scratch. Dunbar, once the educational pride of black Washington, had been a failing school for years. Enrollment is nearly twice that of Bedford (750 vs 400) and when he arrived, students were housed in a sprawling '70s-style building with concrete ramps and no walls for classrooms, part of an "open" design in vogue a generation ago.
Bedford was an application school, where students were screened by the city's education department for grades, standardized test scores and attendance. The names of incoming ninth graders were also available to school officials in May or June, allowing the staff time to reach out to new families.
At Dunbar, Friends of Bedford is required to accept anyone with the legal right to attend, including students from Walker Jones and Emery education campuses, some of whom are multiple grade levels behind in reading when they enter Dunbar. Also destabilizing, Leonard said, was the steady stream of late enrollments after the start of school in August, which interfere with attempts to establish some continuity of culture.
"They just pour in here," he said.
At Bedford Academy, Leonard said, incoming ninth graders attend a mandatory month-long "summer bridge" program to prepare them for the demands of high school and to get an early jump on closing academic deficits they may have brought with them from middle school. Rhee allocated the funds for a summer bridge at Dunbar, but said she was unable to make it mandatory for students or teachers. Relatively few attended, and Leonard said in retrospect he would have insisted on a compulsory summer program.
"I would have demanded that we bring in the freshman class," he said.
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