The buzz about Rhee from "The Bee Eater"
My holiday weekend reading included an early copy of "The Bee Eater," Richard Whitmire's biography of former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, due out next month. Full disclosure at the top: Whitmire, a former reporter and editorial writer for USA Today, interviewed me and devotes a few pages to The Post's coverage of Rhee, including mine. It's fair to say he was not a fan.
"The Bee Eater" (title refers to the oft-told tale of how as a young teacher she silenced a rowdy grade school class by killing and swallowing a bee) doesn't unload any real revelations about the D.C. schools story. But there are a few interesting new nuggets for Rheeologists. New to me, anyway.
One is the role Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp played in pushing Rhee for the chancellorship. Kopp had already been a key figure in Rhee's career, reaching out to her to run the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps school districts recruit teachers. Whitmire reports that at the 2007 annual meeting of the NewSchools Venture Fund (which helps finance charter schools) in New Orleans, a group of young reformers gathered for a late-night meeting to brainstorm who Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who was about to take over the D.C. schools system, might tap to become chancellor. Among the attendees were Rhee, Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, and one of his staff, Abigail Smith, who later became a top Rhee strategist.
"The best brains were tossing out ideas, but even the cutting-edge ones seemed dull," Whitmire writes. "And then Michelle Rhee weighed in. Few remember the exact school reform formula Rhee offered near the midnight hour. What everyone does recall was her boldness. As the night grew ever later, Kopp finally gave into her fatigue, but before leaving the meeting she leaned over and wrote these words on Smith's notepad: How about M Rhee?
Smith whispered to Kopp, 'Would she do it?'
Wendy wrote back: I think possibly yes."
Reinoso was also intrigued, and asked her in a cab they shared the next day if she was interested. Rhee said she wasn't.
"Before Reinoso could tell Fenty about Rhee," according to Whitmire, "the mayor called him and said, 'What do you know about someone by the name of Michelle Rhee?'"
It turns out Kopp had also e-mailed New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein to tout her. Klein, already impressed by Rhee's work representing the city school system in an arbitration hearing with then-United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, had passed her name on to Fenty.
The book also recounts the dramatic turnaround at Anacostia's Sousa Middle School, led by Dwan Jordon, a relentless young principal Rhee hired from Prince George's County in 2008. Test scores surged and school culture shifted on Jordon's watch.
But Whitmire tells the story in tandem with the lesser known, and less triumphant narrative of Johnson Middle School, just a short drive from Sousa. To lead Johnson in 2009-10, Rhee hired David Markus, a veteran teacher with a Harvard masters who had graduated from the New Leaders for New Schools' principals training program. Markus had no school office staff, no business manager, and a faculty consisting mostly of castoffs from other schools. He suffered a heart attack three days before his faculty was due to arrive and things went downhill from there.
On the day Whitmire showed up at Johnson to interview Markus in June 2010, he'd just been informed that Rhee was not going to renew his contract. The building was in harrowing shape, Whitmire wrote, reeking of mold from leaking pipes and with windows "so smeared that the outside world was barely visible, the result of repeated paintball attacks by neighborhood kids." Repair plans had been peeled back by budget cuts. Unlike Sousa, test scores at Johnson remained dismal, and Markus was not able to take control of his building like Jordon.
"I visited the school several times," Rhee tells Whitmire. "I watched him. I don't know that I would have been able to pick this up in a hiring interview, but he is just not the kind of guy who commands respect among kids. When I was talking with him, kids would run by him, yell over him, and throw things."
Rhee said she might have had patience with a new principal in a higher-achieving school. "But when you're talking about a school where 10 percent of the students are proficient and kids are running around ...show me a superintendent anywhere who in that circumstance feels comfortable looking a parent in the eye saying, 'We believe that with two more years of professional development that David Markus would be good."
On a more whimsical note, Whitmire reports that despite her slight frame, Rhee eats enormous meals. According to his footnotes, he often met with her for interviews over lunch in her office.
"Invariably, her lunch would have fed a stevedore: a huge slab of meatloaf and mashed potatoes comes to mind. At another interview she had a large-size McDonald's sweet tea and three round plastic tubs of food: potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and red beans and rice."
But no bees.
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