D.C. Schools: When The Room Goes Its Own Way
When a speaker loses control of a room packed with frustrated, angry people, the ugliness starts quietly and builds -- fast. First, there are murmurs and a rumble of side conversations: "It's not right." "They don't want to hear us."
Then an occasional shout: "You're not listening!" "It's unfair!"
And then -- as happened at one of the hearings D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is holding on her plan to shut 23 underused schools to free up resources for new classroom initiatives -- the room goes its own way. One outraged voice eggs on another, and soon, as I saw one night at Barnard Elementary School, the people in charge are exchanging worried looks and glancing about for someone in uniform.
When the school system holds 23 simultaneous hearings on proposed closings next week, the sessions probably will not go well. This is because Rhee, despite her extraordinary energy and personal authority, has not yet mastered the ability to defy the laws of physics: She will be at only one hearing at a time.
Rhee also is subject to the laws of politics, which tell us that no matter how good your case is for closing someone's school, people in that neighborhood will not like it. They especially won't like it when your plan is deaf to the political realities of the city.
Rhee proposes to shut schools everywhere except in wealthy, white Ward 3. To sell this plan, she sent out a team of administrators that, at Barnard, included six speakers, not one of them black, addressing an audience of about 250 parents, not even a handful of whom were white.
This being Washington, the outrage quickly focused on class and race. "I'm trying to think of a school west of the park that's closing," said Thomas Jones, a retired principal of Rudolph Elementary, a Ward 4 school proposed for shuttering. Dozens of parents in Barnard's multipurpose room jumped up and shouted about how one part of the city was getting preferential treatment.
Rhee's staffers tried to tamp down the anger with platitudes. "I want to thank you for being so candid," said Sherry Ulery, the system's chief of teaching and learning.
"She didn't say anything," came a shout from the back of the room.
They tried the facts: "We right now are running twice as many schools as we need," said Abigail Smith, an assistant to the deputy mayor for education. "We're heating and keeping the lights on in half-empty buildings."
But when Barnard first-grader Jaiden Wilkins stood up and read a powerful piece he'd written about why it would be wrong to add sixth-through-eighth-graders to his elementary school ("They will always curse all the time"), the crowd leapt up as one to cheer.
Finally, with the audience getting too boisterous for the administrators' comfort, staffers ushered Rhee into the room. She strode to the front and took the microphone. Within eight seconds, the room returned to respectful order, without a word having been said.
People just want to be taken seriously.
"Let me try to bring everyone down for a second," Rhee said. She let people rant, let them call her names. She walked over to stand right next to each speaker. She answered with specifics.
"We get $25 million to pay for utilities, but our utility bill is $50 million," she said. "That's $25 million we could put into the classrooms and teachers."
Even as she made the economic case for closings, she acknowledged the emotional arguments against.
"You have every right to be frustrated," she said. "Part of the problem in this city is that we haven't had enough parents come and be emotionally invested in the schools. So I welcome that."
"Why not close 825 instead?" yelled one parent, referring to the system's expensive downtown office building.
"It's absolutely one of the things we've looked at," Rhee replied; it might make sense to move administrators into a school building.
The chancellor brings a determined mix of charisma and reformer's zeal to the job. Even antagonistic audiences want to believe in her. Her rhetoric lines up well with the historic gripes that have dominated the system: She's all about smashing the barriers to delivering the same education whether kids live in poverty or affluence.
But one emotional truth trumps Rhee's compelling logic: Hardly anyone wants to see their local school shuttered. The remaining hearings will be loud and angry, exactly the volatile scene that caused many of the nine previous superintendents to back away from closing schools. Parents at the hearings will be protecting their own, doing what they think is right for them. If Rhee is to accomplish any lasting change, she must bull through and do what's right for all.
By Marc Fisher |
January 6, 2008; 9:19 AM ET
Previous: RFQ: What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (Plus: Last Chance on the Coin Contest) | Next: Schools Monday: Close Buildings, Open Minds
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Toby4 | January 6, 2008 11:05 AM
Posted by: Miriam Moore | January 6, 2008 11:19 AM
Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 6, 2008 12:04 PM
Posted by: Lindemann | January 7, 2008 8:32 AM
Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 7, 2008 12:00 PM
Posted by: DCer | January 7, 2008 4:31 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.