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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


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I posted comments about this column on another articles'message board and I'll repeat the comment to Fisher, so he'll get it. I appreciate his mention of what I perceive to be Rhee's tone-deafness to race. She sent a team of 'experts' to the Barnard parent meeting, none of whom was black, to speak to an audience that must have been all African-American. Maybe Fenty and Rhee are past race and color distictions, but DCPS parents for the most part, aren't.

Posted by: Toby4 | January 6, 2008 11:05 AM

Spinning Deception Into the Illusion of Progress

The Monday evening, December 17, community meeting regarding the pre-k-to-8th grade proposal for Stevens Elementary and Francis JHS (both in ward 2) revealed some rather frightening truths. First, the Fenty-Rhee-Reinoso takeover crew is even more unorganized when it comes to community meetings than the school board ever was. If they can't figure out how to run a public meeting, how in the real world can they run a school system? Informational chaos was aggravated by pretentious scripted rhetoric that deflected important questions with empty answers. The takeover crew kept forgetting they were dealing with truly avid and aware parents, with no patience for nonsense and bureaucratic happy talk.

Second, and most important, many of Stevens' parents feel that their "babies" will be unsafe in the same building as Francis children. I am the parent of a Francis child. While our tweens and teens are experiencing their share of growing pains, they are not in the habit of demoralizing or biting off the heads of smaller children. I don't doubt this perception was fostered as a divide and conquer tactic by the takeover crew.

Nevertheless, I fully and respectfully understand the concerns and frustrations of the Stevens parents. Since DCPS schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has not presented a clear and competent plan for its implementation, parents quite naturally are suspicious of their pre-kindergarten through 8th grade formula. When undertaken correctly and competently, the formula can provide a nurturing transition through the scary, confusing time of puberty for both parents and children. It must, however, be consistently given the proper logistical, programmatic and accountable resources to genuinely succeed.

Given recent reports of DCPS and D.C. government budget deficits, and the fact that all of the proposed school closings were revealed by a cowardly leak to the press, Francis and Stevens parents or teachers have no reason to believe that these resources will be provided. This proposal, therefore, simply appears to be nothing more than a setup for failure and the basis for a potential state sponsored land sale of taxpayer-owned public school property to private developers. No doubt, it will be revealed that the property sales are linked to fiscal imbalances and bogus revenue projections.

What happened to genuine transparency and timely information to the public and D.C. Council? What happened to the millions of taxpayer dollars both school and D.C. government officials said was available for DCPS improvements during mayor Fenty's 2006 campaign and early 2007? Now we heard this December that the actual money needed for academic and structural improvements was "underestimated." Nevertheless, many six-figure salaries have been doled out for dubious duties and invisible results. Is it possible that District citizens are on the verge of another large-scale corruption scandal of misappropriated money? Follow the money in 2008 and beyond.

As a parent, I am a full supporter of the pre-k-to-8th grade school model, and have publicly advocated on its behalf. As a political activist, I am an even firmer advocate for community control within this model - as in citizen control of public schools. Just to be clear, citizen control is beyond the "parent involvement" touted and preferred by officials who view parents as outsiders. As such, I fully respect the desire of Stevens ES parents to keep their school open. Equally, and justifiably, I fully believe that Francis JHS should remain open, and be given the necessary resources to continue to provide a safe and empowered learning environment for our undervalued middle grade children.

Nationally, the middle grades education community realizes that in the middle years, the window for preparing our children for adulthood is growing smaller. We know that an environment that includes adults that are mistrustful of them and view them as predators is detrimental to their development and could push them to the point of alienation and no return. The same will be true when our little learners in elementary school become middle school students.

They are all our babies. Our shared concern for their personal safety and academic well-being should be just as strong for all District of Columbia students. We must work together as a community of united parents and teachers to provide the best learning environments for the success of all our students. Failure is not an option. No doubt, many of our public officials continue to prove through their actions, disinformation and secrecy they have a different agenda.

Miriam Moore,
Vice Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC)

Posted by: Miriam Moore | January 6, 2008 11:19 AM

The Down and Dirty Details About Creating Excellent D.C. Schools

Let's redevelop D.C. public and charter schools into citizen controlled non-tuition Public Academies standardized by 10-student class sizes. The academy concept is designed to enhance greater attention to individual student needs and academically empower all children, particularly our special education achievers, with a stronger, empowering and challenging educational program. At a basic level, we believe our plan fosters a truly student-focused District educational system where children are accomplishing basic reading and introductory mathematics by age 3, not grade 3 --- with an infrastructure where college attendance or post-high school professional occupation training is a standard accomplishment. Citizen-parent oversight and control is a key element throughout.

Reestablishing empowered Neighborhood School Councils, elected and organized by parents, educators, and neighborhood citizens to manage individual schools, will ensure that the quality and level of "customer" oriented service effectively serves diverse end-users --- us. Oversight by a genuinely empowered and fully elected state Department of Education, Board of Education and Superintendent of Curriculum is a more streamlined and publicly accountable system than the top-down multilayered maze that autocrat Fenty proposes. An all-citizen elected system, effectively accountable only to the people, is the foundation that enhances the checks and balances on dysfunctional and autocratic power. Also, experienced and effective public administrators know that keeping it simple and accountable are critical elements in organizational effectiveness. We, the people, know the system is working when our children are prepared for college, successfully start life in a chosen occupation, or create a successful District-based business. We all benefit exponentially when there is a true partnership with citizens to benefit our students.

In our Excellent Schools Plan (ESP), the standard elementary to high school curriculum includes comprehensive English, general sciences, technology, practical to advanced mathematics, environmental studies, critical analysis, strategic thinking, conflict resolution, performing arts, fine arts, American culture, world cultures, social science, government studies, entrepreneurship, and personal finance. Additionally, courses will include writing, public speaking, interpersonal communication, literature, language arts (Spanish, Hausa, Swahili, Yoruba, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Aramaic, Cherokee, French, Italian, Russian, Latin, Greek, German, and Portuguese), pre-college studies, life management, team dynamics, citizen activism, physical fitness and health education. High schools will include diverse occupational training courses and paid apprenticeship programs for senior academy students (computer repair, software and Internet programming, electrical and electronics repair, plumbing, carpentry, automobile repair, healthcare services, and small business development), complemented by rigorous academic studies, and extended full week neighborhood-based student services.

The ESP initiative is designed to systemically provide guaranteed full funding, upgrades and accountable operation in all aspects of the Public Academies to effectively educate pre-kindergarten (age 2) children to high school students. Additionally, as a support tool for teachers and students and on-time delivery of up-to-date curriculum materials, students are assigned highly durable wireless notebook computers. These rugged lightweight units will be pre-loaded with secure curriculum software appropriate to each grade level and specific teacher lesson plans or course materials --- plus additional CD and DVD formatted educational resources. The computers' wireless capability will be encoded to only have access to a school-based Internet transmission, plus the ISIS system (Information Systems Infrastructure for Schools), and formatted CD, DVD and MP3 educational content. As our children are already electronically engaged, we must embrace this interest and ability by using familiar tools and hands-on teacher instruction that enhance their education. These tools will increase fiscal responsibility and accountability regarding expensive annual textbook procurements, storage, waste and on-time delivery.

Within five years we have the power to effectively rescue and empower all of our children by initiating the development, proliferation and standardization of a Public Academy education system with the Preschool Academy (ages 2-3), Primary Academy (kindergarten to 4th grade; ages 4-8), Junior Academy (5th to 8th grade; ages 9-12) and Senior Academy (9th to 12th grade; ages 13-16) students. The program combines highly motivated and experienced teachers with state-of-the-art educational resources. Each class of 10 students has one teacher, amounting to a maximum 500 students per school composed of 100 students per grade. Company workplaces can be given tax incentives and afterschool support to facilitate smaller onsite Preschool Academies and Primary Academies --- as well as increase the productivity and peace of mind of their working parents. In the senior academy years, 16 year old graduates will go into pre-college and/or private and public sector apprenticeship programs --- thereby creating an experienced and capable District-based workforce for our core and emerging industries. This empowers all 8 wards of the District of Columbia, not just the so-called "Washington area" suburbs, to become talent magnets for diverse businesses and services --- fiscally, a sustainable exponential economic development (SEED) benefit.

Community school population sizes can and should be proportioned to the appropriate requirements of a neighborhood. This ensures walking-distance schools, and consistent academic quality for all District communities. A school's 19 to 20-member Neighborhood School Council (NSC; 10 parents, 5 teachers, the school academy principal, 3 community members, and 1 student at the senior academy level) will manage, advise, regulate, and regularly assess overall academy operations, administration and effectiveness. A staff of 10-20 highly competent administrative specialists supports the entire teaching staff and NSC parents. Again, parents and teachers have equally integral and accountable roles throughout the school process. Academic and operational effectiveness is focused locally at the source --- the student --- not at the top-down and middle-management bureaucracy level. This is the reality and benefit of real "parent involvement" when it is genuinely, effectively and fully implemented.

Teachers are required to have a specialized bachelor's degree in science, mathematics, history, languages, the arts, health, fitness, technology, business or another needed discipline. All ESP Public Academy teachers will have at least 1 year of exceptional hands-on teaching experience, and are required to pass an annual standardized (annually revised) written and oral test prior to retention. Private sector and out-of-state teaching options require ESP to be a leader in attracting and retaining top teaching talent. Through mandated full-funding and measurable benchmarks, annual base salaries for teachers will be $50,000 (currently $42,370), plus a full health plan, D.C. located housing benefits, annual professional development grants, and a mid-year certified performance bonus. My most basic belief is that, in partnership with parents or guardians, teachers are society's most critical developmental and success factor in the life of our children and city. I also believe this basic compensation package complements the average cost of living in the District for a professional educator. Teachers, as assessed and decided by the NSC, will receive a yearly salary bonus based on the overall certified academic performance percentage of their students passing the previous end-year and current mid-year standardized examinations.

A proactive and holistic approach will be at the core of a comprehensive ESP educational initiative --- engaging and servicing children, parents and guardians at home and community centers --- ensuring that health, nutrition, housing, transportation, violence, parenting and related issues are effectively addressed to enhance educational success.

Admittedly, the ESP Public Academy concept is bold and outside the box --- perhaps radical to some --- yet, it is a very doable, practical, fully accountable, fiscally responsible and effective plan that can bring our school system truly into the 21st century. Moreover, a school system truly controlled by its end-users and beneficiaries, rather than autocratic bureaucrats, is best. Most parents and educators instinctively know this. Our children prove they respond best to community controlled involvement --- a village genuinely and successfully raising every District child.

Dennis Moore
Chairperson, District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC)
MORE DETAILS: The ESP Public Academy Concept ---

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 6, 2008 12:04 PM

That was some fun reading. A few questions, in case the above commenters return to this thread:

1) Has this ever worked anywhere?

2) How does it work when parents themselves are poorly educated, or (and I do not endorse this) not motivated to help their children succeed in school? Or when they have two or more jobs and don't have the time to commit to such a plan?

3) From reading the plans, it sounds like your program would cost a trajillion dollars (a conservative estimate). Your website does nothing to convince me that I am wrong. Where would the money come from?

I have more questions, but I'll save them for later.

Posted by: Lindemann | January 7, 2008 8:32 AM

Thank you Lindemann, I truly appreciate and respect your questions. Here are my answers in the order of your inquiries:

"1) Has this ever worked anywhere?"

Yes it has and is successfully working in various cities (New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Miami and other cities). There are variations on the ESP Public Academy concept (which is not a trademarked or standardized idea) depending on the demographics and curriculum requirements of each city. In New York City's Harlem community, there is the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) and Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA). Both are funded by public and private revenue, but wholly operated by community based professional educators in partnership with parents and local community interests. Although fully accountable public funding is best, the public and private sectors benefit exponentially by having a truly educated populace. HCZ and TMA are only two of several other academy style (not charter) schools that are totally student-focused in their overall operations. Much of the New York City public schools system, under mayor Michael Bloomberg, is still struggling to emulate their formula and success. Unfortunately, they have yet to effectively purge the top-down autocratic bureaucracy concept that continues to turn-off and turn away parents. Increasingly, the parents continue to express their dissatisfaction by enrolling their children in these public academy style schools, which have been around New York City and elsewhere for over 30 years. In fact, the only reason I didn't attend the publicly/privately funded Harlem Preparatory School ("Harlem Prep") back in the late 1960s, was because of my acceptance into the College Bound program that operated as a public academy within my public high school. In fact, the ESP Public Academy concept is an updated replica of my College Bound education. The concept is not new, and it still works greatly for me (professionally and personally) even at age 55.

"2) How does it work when parents themselves are poorly educated, or (and I do not endorse this) not motivated to help their children succeed in school? Or when they have two or more jobs and don't have the time to commit to such a plan?"

For many decades, there has been and will always be parents (for various reasons) who are far less educated than their children in middle and high school. Several Presidents (Lincoln to Clinton) and current presidential candidates (i.e. John Edwards) have this in their parents' background. When the ESP Public Academy or similar school concepts are effectively in place, it operates holistically and strategically in its implementation of education. As such, parents or guardians regardless of their education are engaged at school, home, work and on the phone by academic counselors who partner with them in their child's academic experiences. As a result, it is easier and quicker to know, assess and effectively act on specific factors (social, domestic, health or logistical) that are affecting a child's academic performance. It's more about having the plan "commit" to the families (traditional and non-traditional families) however the family is structured. As much as we can, my wife and I also only have a limited amount of daily and weekly time to devote to our son's academics as well. Nevertheless, as this is the case with most parents, having an effective community based outreach and after school operation (so-called "wrap-around services") in place (beyond or without grandparents) complements the part-time or full-time efforts of all parents.

"3) From reading the plans, it sounds like your program would cost a trajillion dollars (a conservative estimate). Your website does nothing to convince me that I am wrong. Where would the money come from?"

The money comes from the millions (nearly billions) that are currently (and have always been) wasted on top-down central office and middle management operations in the District of Columbia's public school system. No doubt, you should know that's separate from the millions of federal education dollars that periodically go unused by D.C. government and DCPS bureaucrats through negligence and incompetence. Don't forget the high six-figure payouts to several superintendents over the last 8 years, including the current chancellor and staff. Also, just imagine the millions of dollars saved by using secure wireless and rugged laptop computers with secure downloaded textbook software (as done in school districts across the U.S.), instead of overpriced hardcover books and related materials that rot in storage or never arrive on time. Also, having worked over three years in public affairs for DCPS's central office and at the Office of Chief Financial Officer, I was a witness to the gross and uncovered waste that's being revealed in ongoing federal investigations. Between 2008 and 2010, there will be more investigations, indictments and revelations to come. So, the money is there. The problem is how it's accountably allocated and managed, and still none of these factors are occurring even under the mayoral "takeover." This was clearly affirmed over a month ago at several D.C. Council hearings in testimonies from Michelle Rhee, Victor Reinoso and Alan Lew. It was confirmed that school improvement costs were "underestimated" by the mayor Adrian Fenty's "takeover" crew. Ask yourself, what happened to the "trajillion dollars" they touted as being available and "budgeted" to implement mayor Fenty's "takeover" and the promised opening day improvements? Trust me, pun intended, you can bet your ten years of tax returns that the corruption scandals at D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue and D.C. Public Charter Schools are small change compared to what will be revealed about out public schools revenue over the last ten years. Your tax dollars are at work, on purchases at expensive stores and out-of-state properties, but not for our children.

"I have more questions, but I'll save them for later."

Hopefully, you completely read the Excellence Schools Plan (ESP) Public Academy proposal in my article link of the original post above. Perhaps, you might consider some additional elements that could improve it as well. I welcome any other questions you may have here or at my e-mail address. Thanks again, most sincerely and respectfully.

ESP Public Academy Concept
Harlem Children's Zone -
Thurgood Marshall Academy -

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 7, 2008 12:00 PM

What is up with that "West of the Park" mentality. There are very few schools west of the park and they are filled to capacity. Why should one close Murch with 150 students on the waiting list to keep open a school in an area where no families live anymore?

Posted by: DCer | January 7, 2008 4:31 PM

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