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Posted at 4:50 PM ET, 01/25/2011

Another take from Hardy Middle School parents

By Bill Turque

Sometimes it's easy to assume that the loudest voices are the most important. For months now, a group of parents at Hardy Middle School, unhappy about then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's reassignment of Principal Patrick Pope, have expressed deep concern about what they describe as deteriorating conditions at the Georgetown school. They say scheduling, discipline and the quality of the school's signature music and art programs have suffered in the transition to new Principal Dana Nerenberg.

They are well-organized and persistent. Last year they helped make Hardy and Pope an issue in the mayoral race and earlier this month they met with Mayor Vincent C. Gray's staff to press for Nerenberg's removal.

I'm not saying their arguments lack merit. Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson has responded with a series of measures announced last week to bring more stability to the school. But I've been remiss in bringing other voices into the coverage of Hardy. There is another segment of the parent community that believes that while there are significant issues to address, Hardy is not imploding. They say it is time to move on from the dispute over Rhee's reassignment of Pope-- however ill-advised or clumsily handled it might have been.

And for the record, DCPS had no role in connecting me with these parents.

Susan Coates' three children (in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades) travel from Anacostia each day to attend Hardy. "We wanted our children to have a good public education, and if we thought they weren't getting it, they wouldn't be there," Coates said. As to reports of fighting and discipline issues, she said: "I talk to my kids a lot and they tell me what goes on. There have been an instance or two, but they don't come home telling me there's a fight every day and students are being mean to teachers." Coates added that Nerenberg, also principal at Hyde-Addison Elementary, where her children went before Hardy, has been responsible and attentive despite her dual assignments.

"Our experience has been extremely positive," said Peter Eisler, who has a son in sixth grade. He enjoys going to school every morning. There are legitimate disagreements on the direction of the school. Everyone would agree that we are in the middle of a difficult transition, one made more difficult than it had to be by DCPS." But a lot of the issues are resolvable, he said, including the schedule, which was changed this year from a "block" format of one-hour-plus classes to a more traditional regime of 43-to 46-minute sessions. Many parents say this has diluted the effectiveness of the arts and music instruction.

"This is something everyone seems willing to revisit," Eisler said.

Some parents said they were disturbed by the tone of the the PTA meeting earlier this month, calling it disrespectful to Nerenberg.

"I was very disappointed that it seemed more about damaging the principal's image and record than about pulling the parent community together," said Dana Gillespie, whose seventh grade son transferred to Hardy this year from another DCPS middle school. In a letter to Henderson that she shared with me, Gillespie said:

"Clearly, there are many returning parents who are having difficulty accepting the changes that have been made at Hardy, both in leadership and procedurally. It was also very clear at the meeting that there are many new parents whose experiences at Hardy are not tainted by such anger and frustration, and who feel that their children are receiving a quality education at the school." She said it was unclear to her why the returning parents have been so outspoken in their criticism of the school, "other than to prove a point that the school cannot and will not operate successfully without the previous leadership."

New Hardy parents are not all uniformly pleased with the school. Greg and Marisa Mize are among the 15 sixth grade families who came to Hardy from Key Elementary this year. Rhee's discussions in 2009 with some Key families were a factor in her decision to replace Pope with a principal considered more friendly to neighborhood families.

Their experience has been mixed. Greg Mize said that at least five Key families have pulled their children out of Hardy this year because of concerns about disorganization, taunting and bullying. But he said said they love the diversity of the school, which draws most of its enrollment from across the city. Their daughter has forged friendships that would not have been possible at other schools.

"She's visiting families in other parts of the city she wasn't going to before," he said. "This is very attractive to her and therefore to us. It's a true city environment."

Mize said he intended to keep his daughter at Hardy and that he and other parents will work to turn the page.

"If there are problems, lets figure out solutions," he said. "Problem definition is not enough."

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By Bill Turque  | January 25, 2011; 4:50 PM ET
 
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Comments

Rhee's discussions in 2009 with some Key families were a factor in her decision to replace Pope with a principal considered more friendly to neighborhood families.

Wow, the truth is revealed. Just what does "more friendly to neighborhood families" mean?

As far as disrespecting the principal, many feel that this principal has disrespected the staff and parents by making decisions with seeking input from people who could provide solutions to the problems.

To the parent from SE, you know the principal from Key so therefore, that is all you know. Perhaps if your students had the benefit of the previous principal, you may recognize problems that now exist.

Posted by: dccounselor72 | January 25, 2011 7:16 PM | Report abuse

"Wow, the truth is revealed. Just what does 'more friendly to neighborhood families' mean?"

You're absolutely right that the truth is revealed. The side of the story that Bill Turque never covered was why in-boundary parents wanted Pope removed.

In short, Pope was openly hostile to in-boundary families. He wanted to run Hardy as a magnet school, counter to DCPS policy, and the pesky in-boundary families stood in his way. When the Hardy feeder schools held a middle school fair, four other middle schools came to recruit but Pope refused to show up. The next year, his boss forced him to go, but he was so unprepared and unwelcoming that I heard his boss saying "What the f--- was that?!" as he walked out.

Many in-boundary families have stories of being out-right lied to by Pope or Hardy office staff about admissions. Basically, if you called the school you were told that in-boundary admission was not guaranteed, you have to apply. I know that's not true.

In-boundary parents with problems got the complete cold-shoulder from Pope. I know one family whose child was being bullied, and when they went to talk to Pope he wouldn't see them. They camped outside his office and wouldn't leave until he talked with them, and he said he would do nothing, prefering to let the kids "work things out themselves." Another in-boundary mother recently told me that her child took a knife to school at Hardy because she knew no one would protect her. Another parent recently told me that "Hardy changed my child, and not for the better."

On top of all this, Pope was openly insubordinate to Michelle Rhee. If he'd just done what she'd asked and accepted in-boundary families he'd still have his job. I can't believe she didn't fire him on the spot after his performance at the December 2009 PTA meeting. His fingerprints are all over the movement to get him reinstated. Reading Bill Turque's writing, I have to believe that Turque's #1 source is Pope himself. No one at DCPS wants anything to do with him after the way he's carried on.

Posted by: washpost4 | January 25, 2011 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and Mr. Turque, did it occur to you any earlier in "covering" this story that maybe talking to more than one small group of parents might be a good idea? That maybe the story is a little more complicated than the simplistic morality tale you've spun so far? I realize it's a stretch to expect facts to stand in the way of a good story.

But thanks for helping to ruin my middle school!

Posted by: washpost4 | January 25, 2011 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Want another viewpoint? Go to the Georgetown Dish website at the following address:

http://www.thegeorgetowndish.com/thedish/chancellors-office-leads-pr-campaign-embattled-hardy-principal

Mr. Turque has been played like a piano by the Washington Post management, editorial board, and their favorite education reformer, Michelle Rhee. Now, Kaya Henderson is in charge, at least figuratively, as Rhee's close friend and always-reliable surrogate. These are the critical sources that Turque must cultivate; not Patrick Pope. Rhee even invented a school to serve as a Trojan horse to usher him out the door, and Turque wrote much about this proposed Magnet Arts Middle School as being a serious effort, even though it was preposterous on its face.

DCPS central office will support principal Dana Nerenberg until the day they say she is finished at Hardy, and that day will come much sooner than most people think. The politics are toxic, and the rationalizations that DCPS has used to support Nerenberg are starting to jeopardize the career’s of both interim Chancellor Henderson and instructional superintendent Eric Redwine. A major announcement about the leadership at Hardy is imminent (probably tomorrow), that will once again show that school reform in DCPS is not a collaborative process, but purely a political one. No one at Hardy will know what hit them … again!

Posted by: AGAAIA | January 26, 2011 1:02 AM | Report abuse

For those who think it is wise to start a popularity contest between principals Pope and Nerenberg, like the one being stoked up by some parents and DCPS, it will be even more divisive. Chancellor Rhee made this administrative change with absolutely no input from the Hardy community one year ago, and he was overwhelmingly popular with teachers, staff and families. As a recent Hardy parent who also has heard very disturbing descriptions of Nerenberg’s style of leadership from Hyde-Addison parents last year, I can confidently say that there will be no winner in this game of chicken.

My wife and I pulled my 7th grader out of Hardy MS this year, as did many other in-boundary parents with a very close view of the new administration. And next year many more will follow. This is a tragedy of the greatest order, as the once functional community fabric of this school will not be reestablished for years to come.

The efforts of DCPS and future principal Nerenberg towards transition were virtually non-existent. And no one with an intimate knowledge of the first weeks of this school year could deny that the new administrative team poisoned their relationship with the vast majority of teachers and many long standing Hardy families through provocative and inept behavior that is mind-boggling. The parents and teachers want the best for their children, and every reasonable effort to work with and assist the new administration in collaborative efforts has been made. No one has tried to sabotage the interests of their children because of some misguided affection for principal Pope as has been suggested. The failures at Hardy this year are a clear consequence of the current administration's poor judgment and non-collaborative approach to both teachers and families within the Hardy community.

There are certainly children who can learn and enjoy Hardy today, but this is not close to being the well functioning school it was a year ago. It is a mess, and to say otherwise in the face of the intervention that DCPS announced last week is ludicrous.

The problems at Hardy MS are indicative of a much larger system-wide problem; namely that school communities are being disenfranchised while at the same time DCPS speaks about their intentions to include stakeholders. This type of empty rhetoric is exactly what Mayor Gray said he was going to address, by making his government more responsive to communities. At town hall meetings in every ward of the city, mayor-elect Gray said that he will demand accountability from DCPS leadership. The intervention needed at Hardy cannot be confused with “micro-managing our schools,” it is about the accountability of our leaders, both at DCPS and the Wilson Building, to protect the interests of our children.

Posted by: AGAAIA | January 26, 2011 1:07 AM | Report abuse

@washpost4

So I guess you feel great about enrolling your child into Hardy this year. It is silly to blame Bill for the conditions at Hardy.

That chat with Rhee really worked well for ya.

Posted by: dccounselor72 | January 26, 2011 7:29 AM | Report abuse

"Another in-boundary mother recently told me that her child took a knife to school at Hardy because she knew no one would protect her."

And the "in-boundary mother" allowed it and is crowing about it?

This makes it hard to believe any of your other claims.

Posted by: efavorite | January 26, 2011 7:58 AM | Report abuse

I believe the WaPo journalist when he says that DCPS didn’t approach him to write this feel-good story about current Hardy leadership, but I also believe the Georgetown Dish journalist who published this email from a DCPS official to Hardy parents:

"Calling for Hardy Parent Support," Safiya Simmons, the Chancellor's Assistant Press Secretary, wrote, "I have been working with Prin. Nerenberg on refuting rumors that parents are unhappy with Hardy. After reading Bill Turqe’s (sic) article in The Washington Post this weekend, I asked Prin. Nerenberg for the names of a few parents I could chat with. I’d like very much to have a Hardy parent or two write a letter to the editors of The Washington Post disproving the story that Bill Turque is trying to sell: that all parents are unhappy with Hardy, that Prin. Nerenberg is not doing as good a job as prin. (sic) Pope was, and that the school somehow is spiraling out of control."
http://www.thegeorgetowndish.com/thedish/chancellors-office-leads-pr-campaign-embattled-hardy-principal

The Dish article also says this:
When asked whether the Chancellor's office was soliciting public support for Nerenberg, Simmons first said, "I am not actively asking parents. But that doesn't mean that someone else on our team is not doing that. This is a big organization." She added, "We had some conversations in November, but that effort did not pan out."
Later, Simmons wrote an email to The Georgetown Dish, saying "there isn’t a campaign to solicit parental endorsement of Hardy in the press" but that "Interim Chancellor [Kaya] Henderson has received multiple emails from parents expressing their support of Ms. Nerenberg" and that the Chancellor's office was contacting those parents to speak with the media.
I can accept that not all Hardy parents think alike and I can understand that DCPS would want to encourage parents with supportive points of view to express their opinions to the press. They have a right to do so.

I also support the Dish report showing that it’s not some sort of grassroots movement.

The movement supporting Pope is grassroots; the one supporting Nerenberg is not. It's orchestrated by DCPS administration

Posted by: efavorite | January 26, 2011 8:44 AM | Report abuse

""Another in-boundary mother recently told me that her child took a knife to school at Hardy because she knew no one would protect her."

And the "in-boundary mother" allowed it and is crowing about it?

This makes it hard to believe any of your other claims."

She wasn't crowing, and she didn't allow it. She didn't learn until after it happened and was appalled.

Posted by: washpost4 | January 26, 2011 8:52 AM | Report abuse

"And no one with an intimate knowledge of the first weeks of this school year could deny that the new administrative team poisoned their relationship with the vast majority of teachers and many long standing Hardy families through provocative and inept behavior that is mind-boggling. "

So surely it would be no problem to provide some specifics about this "provocative and inept behavior"? Maybe an anecdote or two. Something beyond "we want Pope back"?

I've yet to hear any specific complaint from the pro-Pope forces other than they're upset he's gone.

Specifics please.

If Bill Turque had an ounce of journalism in him this is the question he should have been asking. But that would be letting facts get in the way of a good story.

Posted by: washpost4 | January 26, 2011 8:57 AM | Report abuse

washpost4 - thanks for the clarification.

As for past articles about Hardy's problems, just search "turque" or "Hardy" using the Washpost search engine.

And let's face it, DCPS would not have installed an anti-bullying campaign there if there weren't big problems.

Posted by: efavorite | January 26, 2011 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I am starting to wonder if Washpost4 is a member of the current administration at Hardy.

Sorry but your comments are sounding more and more fake. You are trying too hard. Why are you speaking for the in-boundary parents. Did the knife incident happen this school year or last? Full disclosure please.

The Dish story is very telling about the DCPS, Henderson and the state of affairs at Hardy.

It is time to attack Pope, Bill and parents. Seems like the Rhee tactics are in full bloom. Now, the editorial board will write a piece attacking parents, attacking Pope and praising the new administration.

Posted by: dccounselor72 | January 26, 2011 9:18 AM | Report abuse

We are still talking about Hardy because...? Maybe I should have said we are still discussing Hardy because previous discussions were a moot point. We have had previous chancellor's, interim chancellor's, politicians, mayoral hopefuls, mayor-elects, parents, teachers, students and associations all discussing Hardy and no movement. We have had parents remove their children as well as we have parent have their children remain. We have had protest to private conversations regarding Hardy. We have one principal doing a dual job, while we have the removed principal looking for a school. We have children trekking from across the city to attend Hardy and those who live in the neighborhood taking car-pools to go to other educational alternatives. This problem all started when, about 16 months ago and AGAIN we are still discussing Hardy. What is that saying if you do the same thing over and over again with no results.....??? So, if the powers that be are ignoring the masses over and over again and the masses are constantly talking about Hardy issues over and over again with no results.

Posted by: PowerandPride | January 26, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

We had been considering sending our oldest to Hardy, our in-boundary middle school, but are now looking much more seriously at other options. If the DCPS management issues and the current principal vs. former principal argument weren't enough, the parents on both (all?) sides of the debate sound absolutely horrible. I can't imagine voluntarily subjecting my child to such a toxic environment. Surely the belligerent attitudes of the parents will be reflected in their children's attitudes towards school and each other.

Posted by: gpark | January 26, 2011 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Will DCPS admin ever admit their role in causing this toxic atmosphere or are they too stubborn and too convinced of their own rightness in all things.

Posted by: efavorite | January 26, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

"I am starting to wonder if Washpost4 is a member of the current administration at Hardy."
No, in-boundary parent.

"Sorry but your comments are sounding more and more fake. You are trying too hard. "
Yes, I'm introducing facts into the argument rather than broad generalizations. I realize that's unusual.

"Why are you speaking for the in-boundary parents."
Because I am one.

"Did the knife incident happen this school year or last? Full disclosure please."
It was before last year but during Pope's tenure.

Posted by: washpost4 | January 26, 2011 10:51 AM | Report abuse

@Will DCPS admin ever admit their role in causing this toxic atmosphere or are they too stubborn and too convinced of their own rightness in all things.

Posted by: efavorite | January 26, 2011 10:35 AM

No, they won't.
Nor will Miss Rhee.
Nor will she admit failure with Dunbar HS.
Nor will the nation media nor Oprah ask her about it.

Posted by: edlharris | January 26, 2011 11:00 AM | Report abuse

"Will DCPS admin ever admit their role in causing this toxic atmosphere or are they too stubborn and too convinced of their own rightness in all things."

I actually agree with you here. There is no doubt that this whole situation was bungled, bungled, bungled and then bungled some more by Michelle Rhee and company.

1. The way that the change was announced was unnecessarily antagonistic and I agree that it showed disrespect for Hardy parents and faculty. It led to an environment of mistrust and division.

2. Given (1), bringing in a principal with no middle-school experience was a huge mistake.

3. Given (1) and (2), experimenting with a 3-day-a-week principal was a recipe for failure.

I was at the December 2009 Hardy PTA meeting when the change was announced, and I could not believe my eyes and ears at how poorly Rhee was handling it. Nothing that has happened since then should surprise anyone, it was all predictable.

Posted by: washpost4 | January 26, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Breaking news:
Nerenberg is out at Hardy. Pope will not be allowed to apply for principal position.

Just posted on Bill's site.

DCPS still giving parents the finger.

Posted by: dccounselor72 | January 26, 2011 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Washpost4 says: "I actually agree with you here. There is no doubt that this whole situation was bungled, bungled, bungled and then bungled some more by Michelle Rhee and company."

Good - then maybe you'll consider that the Pope supporters have more of a case than "We want Pope back."

Maybe you'll check the facts yourself instead of expecting Pope supporters to present them to you.

Maybe you'll consider that parents being pitted against each other is unfortunate natural fall-out of such a huge management failure. People feel powerless, so they start arguing with each other -- at least it's a dialogue.

Posted by: efavorite | January 26, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

And maybe you, efavorit, should recognize that a petition by some within-boundary parents to have Hardy be a better school should not have been an excuse to sneer that they were all racists and representative of more of the same. Several new posters here have testified to the choice Pope made: there was a larger market of out-of-boundary students to be tapped and courted than there was a local population to draw on. Consequences of that attitude permeated the school and Pope administration.

Now, I look forward to you expressing wisdom rather than just cracking wise with your regular buds here on how Hardy (or any MS) can be excellent, with an unselected intake, not just a good enough one by screening out educational failures.

Posted by: incredulous | January 26, 2011 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Disgree w/Susan, Pete and the others but respect their opinions. Respect leads to healthy discussions and shared decision-making for positive outcomes.

Our children need positive outcomes. This disruption is terrible!

Posted by: ColoredSpirit | January 27, 2011 12:23 PM | Report abuse

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