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Mayor Blackberry's Back to School Adventure

(First in a series of Monday items following the takeover of the D.C. school system by Mayor Adrian Fenty. In addition to today's installment and yesterday's column, please check out the investigative series on the D.C. schools that began in Sunday's Post and continues through Tuesday.)

Time was that the model of a big-city mayor was the chunky ward-heeler who buddied up to the unions and contractors alike, regularly walked a well-trod path from one ethnic eatery to the next, and made sure to keep uniformed employees and teachers firmly on his side. Great--Fiorello LaGuardia, Richard Daley--and bad--Frank Hague of Jersey City, Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia--these were the reformers and the machine pols who seemed as if they could rule forever.

The latest fashion in mayors is one that borrows from the street-level, constituent service character of that earlier era but marries that populist passion with modern media technology. Washington's Adrian Fenty has clearly modeled himself after the crew of mayors who weld themselves to the Crackberry, show up at nearly every homicide scene, monitor the police radio so they know where the TV news live trucks will be on any given night, and make themselves seen at neighborhood meetings of every possible stripe.

Here are some choice descriptions from a recent New Yorker magazine piece:

"Sometimes the Mayor seems to think that he can wrest the ideal city into existence through sheer kinetic energy. ... [G]overning looks a lot like campaigning. The Mayor spends a great deal of time away from his office, appearing at half a dozen events most days, and holding multiple press conferences.... In times of crisis, his talent for connecting with people is a boon, but at other times it can appear contrived."

He "appointed new people--many of whom were very talented--to government jobs, and assigned these issues to them. But he wanted a signature initiative, and he decided to seek mayoral control of the public-school system...."

"...the Mayor is fanatic about his workout regimen...."

A New Yorker profile of Fenty, already? No, a profile of Antonio Villaraigosa, the more experienced mayor of Los Angeles, one of several big-city mayors Fenty has made a point of visiting and studying as he has engaged in his best practices tour of the nation--a process that may have contributed to the too-literal adoption of some other mayors' strategies and policies.

Los Angeles's first Hispanic mayor in more than a century has, like Michael Bloomberg in New York and Richard Daley the Younger in Chicago, tried to make a takeover of the public schools a centerpiece of his reform efforts. But the law in California--along with considerable opposition to his plan-- made it impossible for Villaraigosa to achieve anything close to the power that those other mayors have won. Fenty is already well ahead of his Los Angeles colleague in wresting control of the schools from the elected board that has had political authority over the system for many years. But Fenty too has faced both popular opposition and legal challenges.

Opponents of the Fenty takeover sought to put the schools control issue to the voters in a referendum, but the mayor outmaneuvered the anti-takeover crowd, and a D.C. Superior Court judge last week put the final kibosh on the referendum movement. Fenty values speed, deliberate action and competent management so highly that he believes the voters will support him even if he didn't specifically lay out his takeover plan in his campaign last fall. Fenty has been eager to complete his schools takeover soon enough so he could make a noticeable difference in the opening of school this fall. That would likely entail picking a new schools chief before August.

At this point, with the D.C. Council, Congress and apparently most of the voters either on Fenty's side or at least willing to give this a try (on the theory that nothing else has worked), Fenty is right to argue that his landslide victory gives him a mandate to make some dramatic changes.

But it's also true that the public schools are virtually impervious to the kind of change that comes far more easily in areas of city government where management makes all the difference: Either the traffic signals get synchronized or they don't. Either the snow gets plowed or it doesn't. Either crime drops or residents get scared. But schools are different: No matter what Fenty does, no matter whom he hires, the great majority of the kids in the D.C. schools will be underperforming youngsters coming largely from families with little record of academic devotion or achievement, with a disproportionate number of kids living in poverty or with parents in prison or with families ravaged by drug abuse.

New structures, new managers and new resources can and should get the buildings rehabbed, the physical systems repaired, the books delivered on time and the quality of hiring improved. That's where Fenty's control can make a big difference. But that doesn't translate neatly into a classroom experience so altered that one could expect very different results from students. Schools have become far more than transmitters of information or concepts. They have been saddled with all manner of social work and health care responsibilities for which teachers and administrators are ill-equipped. Nothing in Fenty's vision promises to change that essential truth.

Fenty probably would have been better off politically choosing a different focus for his big first-year initiative. But instead he picked the single most nagging and maddening problem in the District. For that, he certainly deserves kudos. But that shouldn't make us expect miracles: In the field of public education in a big city, no mayor has pulled one of those out of his hat.

By Marc Fisher |  June 11, 2007; 7:17 AM ET
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don't sell fenty's vision short, marc. think about the difference that you notice when you go down a newly paved street, or when a building has gone from a boarded up dump to a contributing part of the block. i think we can expect the same when the schools get fixed up. if kids aren't dwelling on the freezing cold room they're in, or on the rodents running around them, or on the water dripping on their head, they can start to think "hey, this is a real school" or maybe they won't think of the physical plant at all and will able to focus on learning. i think it's all an outgrowth of the 'broken windows theory'.

Posted by: IMGoph | June 11, 2007 10:45 AM

I agree that improvement in the schools will not be as fast as improvements to city government or even as fast as commercial development. I do, however, believe that you can measure yearly improvements. Education is a process and it will realistically take some time to improve.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 11, 2007 11:46 AM

I agree that improvement in the schools will not be as fast as improvements to city government or even as fast as commercial development. I do, however, believe that you can measure yearly improvements. Education is a process and it will realistically take some time to improve.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 11, 2007 11:46 AM

Fenty deserves a chance. For those of you commenting - if you haven't set foot in a DCPS school building (besides Wilson) you don't really have any idea.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 11, 2007 1:03 PM

For once I'm pleased to see a new mayor tackle the single most daunting, frustrating aspect of DC, instead of saving it for later. Perhaps if parents see a difference, they'll participate a little more in the process. Well, maybe not, but you never know unless you try.

Posted by: DCAustinite | June 11, 2007 1:20 PM

Go Mayaor Fenty GO! I support you 100%

Posted by: Alice | June 11, 2007 2:47 PM

Many of us share a difficult time discerning constructive criticism from political pessimism and ineffective leadership when it comes to understanding our public schools. Every right-thinking person in the District wants Fenty to succeed in the school take over process. But, the reality of school transformation is exceeding intricate and complex. The problem most residents are having is that student-classroom performance; student behavior; parental involvement; governance; teacher/student ratios and school modernization are all being presented as if they were distinctly seperate entities. They are not! Each is deeply intertwined and connected. Neither will ever become truely effective without synchronized, interdependent support of the other. And the part that continues to evade reasoning is this disillusioned notion that every student emerges from a "wonderful home" prepared to learn! Blight,illiteracy,interpersonal violence,crime,substance abuse need alot more of a "fix it" remedy than this thoughtless response of always calling for more police. Until we have an honest, candid discussion about the dysfunctional human conditions that impede learning and fosters failure in our schools nothing much is ever going to change.

Posted by: Tom Blagburn | June 11, 2007 3:49 PM

Give the new plan a chance. The current system has been broken forever. Only a lunatic would advocate doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result.

Posted by: CEEAF | June 11, 2007 10:43 PM

What amazed many of us used to big-city mayors during the Barry era was that the streets weren't plowed, the traffic signals weren't synchronized, and in the ward that was his political base, infant mortality was worse than in Bangladesh... and they loved him.

At $12,000 a student, couldn't you hand some % of students a check and let them go to private schools; then, have teacher/student ratios in the low teens for those left behind?
The biggest obstacle, hinted at in Part Two, is the dead wood personnel. The article's focus was on administration, but there must be (a lot of) teachers just going through the motions (if that) who will resist being removed- even for the good of countless kids.

Posted by: Burn, Jane Byrne | June 12, 2007 10:48 AM

If this is truly 1st in a series then Marc you need to be cheering Fenty on -"Fenty values speed, deliberate action and competent management" to "make some dramatic changes" - it appears he's translating this into "New structures, new managers and new resources can and should get the buildings rehabbed, the physical systems repaired, the books delivered on time and the quality of hiring improved" starting with the change at the top today (not sometime before August).

Posted by: Rob Iola | June 12, 2007 11:33 AM

If Fenty can get the buildings in a state where they are not disgusting leaking pits with daily sewage backups that no one cleans then maybe, just maybe, the kids will feel more like human beings and start to improve educationally, despite the lack of parental support. Maybe more teachers would stay too.

Posted by: Former DCPS Employee | June 12, 2007 3:02 PM

Marc's right.

This is the right thing to do and the best time to do it. Fenty deserves kudos for using his honeymoon political capital on a long-term project like this one.

Posted by: Mark | June 12, 2007 10:08 PM

what? you're saying that the DCPS will not succeed simply because Fenty has taken it over? What is this?!?

Posted by: cc | June 13, 2007 5:59 PM

The DC schools mess has chewed the arm off every intrepid soul who has dared poke a stick into its cage for at least twenty years, which is as long as I've been paying attention. Corporal punishment is out, shame is out, holding parents accountable is out. As long as the government is seen as the solution, there will be no solution.

Posted by: gruff mcruff | June 13, 2007 8:49 PM

The best kept corrupt little secret within DCPS is its Special Education Transportation Division. It services approx. 4,000 of the 55,000 students by providing transportation to and from school on yellow school buses for students deemed special needs; however, ok, are you ready - requires more than 64 million per year.

Lets do the math: that's 16,000 bucks per student. In addition, the court appointed administrator over transportation demanded an additional 14 million bucks from the school's budget.

This is unacceptable!! But the school superintendent and school board have been afraid to put the gloves on and go clean transportation's house.
I concur - Go Fenty GO!!

Posted by: Matt | June 13, 2007 10:08 PM

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