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Stretching It: Schools and Strudel

Sometimes, as when you're making strudel, stretching makes a good thing much better. But too often these days, we experience the other kind of stretching, the kind that distorts the truth and makes it hard for people to trust one another. I tasted both kinds of stretching yesterday, and I like the edible sort much better.

The afternoon took me to D.C. schools headquarters, where Superintendent Clifford Janey was announcing the closing of six schools. The event seemed straightforward enough: The city's system has vastly more space than it has students to fill that space. By shutting down schools, the District could save a boatload of money and use that to give children a decent place in which to learn. Of course, no school system likes to shut down buildings, and surely the administrators and school board members will face the wrath of parents and neighbors who are losing their schools.

But the news conference quickly turned contentious and even antagonistic as reporters tried to hack their way through the school system's intentionally obscure lingo. Instead of just putting out the news of the closings in an honest, clean fashion, Janey and an army of fancy consultants tried to bury the bad news in words that could only serve to anger. There was no talk of closings, only "consolidations" and "operational efficiencies." The system isn't being shrunk, it's being "right-sized."

The principal of one of the schools chosen for closing, Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center (its very name is a relic of another era of eduspeak obfuscation--in the 1970s, it was somehow cool to use words other than "school" to mean, um, school), kept pronouncing himself "positive" about the dismantling of his facility. He was so positive about it that he sounded like he wasn't going anywhere. He did concede under questioning that "most" of the students from Fletcher-Johnson would be moved elsewhere.

Wait a minute, reporters said. "Most?" Are some students staying at Fletcher-Johnson? Is the building remaining open?

Finally, Janey had to step in and use actual English. No, he said, "all" the students would move. Two other administrators jumped in to clarify that Fletcher-Johnson was really closing, except that even then, they couldn't bring themselves to use that word.

Why stretch the truth? If the school closing process is anywhere near as rigorous or honest a process as the system claims it is, why hide the facts?

Janey has chosen to do something that many previous superintendents were unwilling to tackle. He deserves considerable credit for doing that. To be charitable, perhaps he is merely in the thrall of the consultants who put together this package. But while eduspeak is ubiquitous, that doesn't make it any less depressing. If anyone should be straight, it's people who teach children.

Better stretching: Last night at the Kalorama home of Austria's ambassador to the United States, Eva Novotny, the great Washington food writer Joan Nathan delivered a splendid lesson on the strudel.

The occasion was a reception for my old friend Ed Serotta, a photographer whose work illustrated many of the pieces I wrote from Germany while serving as the Post's bureau chief there. Serotta's current project, centropa.org, is a digital museum of Jewish life in central Europe, with extraordinary stories by the ordinary people who survived not only the Holocaust but decades of Communist rule.

Serotta's work takes him to the entire strudel belt, and diplomats from Austria, Hungary and Romania were on hand, so Nathan had to walk gingerly as she assigned credit for the fine spinach and feta, leek and ham, grape and apple strudel that we enjoyed. It seems the difference between phyllo dough and strudel dough is one of rolling vs. stretching. Strudel is stretched, pulled so thin that, as the Austrian ambassador put it, "you should be able to read the newspaper through the dough." Many strudel stories were told, and Nathan lamented the fact that far too much strudel is now produced with a phyllo-making machine invented by Greek immigrants in Cleveland.

But we were served the real thing, stretched by hand by the embassy's chef. Excellent stuff--the kind of stretching that builds trust, serves truth, and expands the belly.

Now, please find me some top-quality strudel available for purchase in the Washington area. Nominations, anyone?

By Marc Fisher |  May 16, 2006; 7:52 AM ET
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Comments

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I also deplore spin, but the last politician who tried to level with the American people was Walter Mondale in his debates with Reagan and we see where it got him. There are politicians who play the game for the greater good, politicians who do so for personal gain and politicians who think it's the best game in town--I'm willing to suspend judgement about Janney. After all it's hard enough being Sisyphus without a peanut gallery.

Posted by: Chris | May 16, 2006 8:26 AM

Marc,

Here's a thought which might solve both your problems. We can achieve some "operational efficiencies" by "right sizing" the Fletcher-Johnson Learning Center and "consolidating" it into a strudel bakery. Win-win!

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | May 16, 2006 8:56 AM

For quality strudel, try to Heidelberg Bakery on Lee Highway in Arlington. That bakery (and deli) is about the only thing I miss about that part of Northern Virginia.

Posted by: Tenleytown | May 16, 2006 10:05 AM

Consolidation", "downsizing", "right-sizing", etc. are straight out of business school. They've been adopted by the education industry to convey the image of business, efficient, bottom line oriented, results driven. When in truth their the same old hack industry they've always been. Childrens education is the last thing on the mind of anyone above the level of teacher.

Posted by: Stick | May 16, 2006 10:18 AM

The school consolidation thing: we've taken what should have been a positive and made it, well, terrible. The whole idea was to make the schools more efficient and raise $$ for the school system.

Now Janey says the excess property won't be developed as residential or retail. Instead, it will be city offices or 'social services'. That's a terrible way to encourage development. And neighbors and parents that may have been in favor of this plan now face the real possibility of their school closing to be replaced by a homeless shelter. We've seen what a negative impact these massive DC-run homeless shelters have on a neighborhood when they move into a huge building like a school.

Unbelievable how my beloved city can screw up such a win-win idea.

Posted by: Hillman | May 16, 2006 11:11 AM

It might be worthwhile to explore how Pittsburgh, another city w/ a shrinking school population, has handled this problem. I have only gossip, but friends there have told me that the forthrightness of the school superintendent helped to minimize the conflict and opposition that can arise in the difficult process of closing schools.

The superintendent's name, by the way, is Mark Roosevelt. He is the great-grandson of TR.

Posted by: THS | May 16, 2006 11:14 AM

It's a real shame not to turn old school buildings into housing. Not all would be suitable, of course, but some old buildings can be turned into fabulous loft condos. The Lovejoy School lofts on Capitol Hill are one such example.

Posted by: THS | May 16, 2006 11:38 AM

Strudel? How about Cafe Mozart? They might make a German strudel. While we are on the topci of food, where can you get a decent bialy?

Georgetown Bagel Bakery used to make them but now only when requested in advance.

www.dcbubble.blogspot.com

Posted by: dcbubble | May 16, 2006 12:20 PM

Money is not the issue. The school system already speands more per pupil than anywhere else in the country. The Council passed a bill to spend $1 billion on upgrading facilities over the next several years.

The idea is to stop paying for the upkeep and operation of old, underutulized buildings.

Posted by: DCPS Parent | May 16, 2006 2:49 PM

I'm reminded of Homer's line on the "Simpson's" -- "It takes two to lie. One to lie, and one to be lied to." It takes two to obfuscate, one to obfuscate and one to be obfuscated to.

Posted by: DC Parent | May 16, 2006 3:17 PM

What ever happened to all those teachers that weren't qualified? Wasn't that supposed to be settled by June?

Posted by: Richard | May 16, 2006 4:52 PM

Homer's line is, "Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen." The point stands, of course, but we Simpsons nerds have to represent.

Posted by: Lindemann | May 16, 2006 7:46 PM

Is it true, according to the article by Chris Wattie in the Canadian National Post, that a law is likely to pass in Iran requiring Jews to wear a yellow stripe and Christians to wear a red badge in order to more easily identify nonmuslims?
http://www.canada.com/components/print.aspx?id=11fbf4a8-282a-4d18-954f-546709b1240f&k=32073

Posted by: Aliya | May 19, 2006 2:35 PM

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