Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

Schools Monday: Close Buildings, Open Minds

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee burst onto the scene with a strategy not seen before in the District's long-troubled system: Put out the bad news, great big heaping servings of it, nearly every day.

After decades of trying to pretend that things were just fine, or just circling the wagons to try to protect funding and staff from the ravages of outside criticism, the school system was suddenly touting its own bad news--buildings in disrepair, management flaws that mucked up reform efforts, messed-up warehouses, wasted dollars and on and on.

The strategy, very much informed by Mayor Adrian Fenty's similar approach when he took office, makes sense politically: If you're trying to drum up support for a big reform push, you want to persuade both the voters and the elected officials that you really do need new programs and dollars. And goodness knows the news reporters will be happy to jump on board the Bad News Express.

So we had week after week of publicity stunts in which the mayor and chancellor demonstrated just how far things had fallen. And coming in right behind that news, they offered some solutions, including a quick and highly visible construction program aimed at fixing some of the most egregious and obvious problems in the system--torn-up, useless fields and gyms, buildings without heat, that sort of thing.

But then the strategy shifted, and in a curious direction. For the past few weeks, we've seen newspaper and online ads seeking applicants for principal and other leadership positions in the D.C. schools. The ads tout the strong performance of young, energetic principals such as Wayne Ryan of Noyes Elementary.
Nothing wrong with seeking new talent, of course, but if you had just spent megamillions to fix up school buildings and fields and you found money to spend on advertising, would you choose to spend it on a campaign to recruit talent to the system you'd just spent months ragging for all its faults? Or would you spend that money to let the public know just how far you've been able to take those schools in those few short months?

Wouldn't it make more sense to get the word out that some of the most appalling physical plant issues in the D.C. schools have now been fixed? I am amazed at how few parents around the city seem to have seen or know about the new tracks, fields, lighting, heating and other repairs that the new management team at D.C. public schools have already put in place. Wouldn't it become a lot easier to attract talent to the system if there was a sense around town that the repair job was already happening?

One response from the system will be that the need for new leaders is immediate, and surely that's right. But for the Bad News Express to be an effective strategy, it has to be followed quickly by highly visible signs that the new sheriff in town is making real changes.

As it stands now, Rhee is associated in the public mind with telling the truth about what's wrong with the schools, and now with her plan to shut down 23 underused schools to free up money for all manner of classroom initiatives, such as restoring arts, physical education and other essential programs that were cut in the wake of the No Child Left Behind testing hysteria. Those are good and important objectives, but a big part of the politics of reviving both the schools and confidence in the city as a whole is to send the message that at least in some pockets, things are getting better, that real reform is indeed possible.

The danger otherwise is that the bad news becomes overwhelming. Already, at some of the hearings the system is holding on closing down schools, it's too easy to hear parents and others talk about Rhee and Company as more than people can bear. "It's too much change, just too much change, from the head on down," said a D.C. teacher who told the crowd at a hearing at Barnard Elementary School that she had taught in three schools that have been shut down.

No one wants a bunch of PR lies about the system Putting Children First, as a failed slogan of the past put it. But if DCPS were to tout what's really changed and show the wider community the new facilities and competent or even inspiring new leaders put into place by the new administration, that could help build support for the next, much harder phase: Making a difference in the classroom.

By Marc Fisher |  January 7, 2008; 7:43 AM ET
Previous: D.C. Schools: When The Room Goes Its Own Way | Next: The Weather Outside Comes Inside


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Bring it on. We need more change. From my perspective as the father of a 7 month old, the schools are a disaster. As it stands today, my child will not go to DCPS beyond elementary. If that means leaving the city I've lived in for 16 years, then so be it. I give Mayor Fenty carte blanche to make whatever changes he sees fit to fix the schools. I hope he cuts the central admin staff in half, because I'm sure they are most of the cause of the problems. Get good teachers, fix the infrastructure, close down facilities to cut costs and make this system one we can all be proud of!

Posted by: Jim | January 7, 2008 9:28 AM

Yeah, this reminds me of what I'm doing now- eating right after the holidays. Oh, how I'd love to have crackers and cheese and fresh-baked cookies after dinner, but the cracker days are over. Now is the time for DC schools to wake up early, to do the sit ups and push ups, to bring the fruit into work and stay away from the vending machines and at night, to avoid the crackers and go to sleep early. The cracker era in DC schools is over and Fenty is going to be the Jack Lalane who will keep us in line. It's for our own good even if we miss sleeping late and eating crackers.

Posted by: DCer | January 7, 2008 10:35 AM

I support Rhee and Fenty 200%. For the first time in 4 years, I see leadership in action. They are not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Their real battle will come when they figure out that they MUST round up, fire the criminals from the Marion Barry era, and strategize to get these reforms to trickle down to the local school. There is much work to be done - and facilities issues are a small part. If the public only knew what goes on in some of these schools - they would openly weep.

Posted by: salemoaktree | January 7, 2008 10:50 AM

Good points about the recent improvements, including the new athletic fields built for several high schools. There have been other improvements, such as new library collections in elementary school, new computers for teacher use for lesson planning, record keeping and grades. But few people seem to know about the positives.

Posted by: Toby4 | January 7, 2008 10:54 AM

Good points, Marc, but how about if the Post does its part? How about sending someone to report on what's happening at Duke Ellington School for the Arts? The Post chronicled the devastating condition of the building a year or 2 ago. Well, for months now, construction equipment has been there, and there were even workers on the roof over the winter break. What's happening? Has the roof been fixed so that the dance students have a real studio to use instead of rehearsing in the hallways?

Posted by: gpark | January 7, 2008 12:37 PM

Excellent points, Marc. I've seen some of the changes. I strongly oppose the closing of Stevens School - which is in my neighborhood but is used almost entirely by parents who commute in the K Street/West End neighborhood and want their children to go to school nearby, and away from some very bad neighborhoods. But I'm tempering my opposition because I want so desperately to see Fenty and Rhee succeed. For 40 years, DCPS and the Central Office have engaged in a systematic form of child abuse. Now, a new Mayor has staked his political future on changing this. I'll cut him all the slack they need. And you're right: Fenty and Rhee should be getting out the good news - both in the neighborhoods and city-wide.

Posted by: Dupont Circle Resident | January 7, 2008 1:01 PM

Marc has truly fantastical logic when he says, "She's all about smashing the barriers to delivering the same education whether kids live in poverty or affluence." As well as, "If Rhee is to accomplish any lasting change, she must bull through and do what's right for all."

If my memory, first-hand experience working at DCPS, and reality serves me correctly, all of what Marc and others with short visions present are just updated and reflavored versions of what we've heard before --- and presently from our latest recruit in serial superintendents program.

Has he, or anyone else truly thought thoroughly outside the box, or even about the box itself? Here are five critical questions to consider: 1) What happens when D.C.'s family population rises and there are not enough schools, operating revenue, personnel, or property space to service them?

2) Beyond a fiscally expensive new baseball stadium, pricey stores, dwindling affordable housing, and crime emergencies --- what will be the draw for revenue-generating families to move to the District of Columbia if there are not enough (or conveniently located) schools of good quality?

3) Are mayor Adrian Fenty, Michelle Rhee, Victor Reinoso, Allen Lew, and condo developers (i.e. Fenty's campaign contributors) betting that mostly (or only) high income childless couples and singles will relocate into the District, and float the massive revenue needed to effectively run our city's many and increasing public needs?

4) Is the real deal behind the school property closures (and other taxpayer-owned assets) and sales actually due to the coming D.C. fiscal crisis that CFO Natwar Gandhi knows is on the horizon?

5) Are we actually witnessing America's biggest yard sale (including schools and other publicly-owned properties) to raise money --- that no one wants to admit to?

Of course, let's not begin to factor in the lost millions to be revealed in the ongoing federal investigations and indictments of systemic District government corruption and waste. Stay tune, hold on to your wallets, and make a personal financial fail-safe plan if you can.

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

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 8, 2008 1:01 PM

A few substantive insights about D.C. public education, and the down and dirty details of a concept to improve it, as well as District government fiscal policy:

The ESP Public Academy Concept
The Coming D.C. Fiscal Crisis
Reality Check On D.C. Fiscal Policy and Indictments

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 8, 2008 1:04 PM

Dennis, is this the best forum to promote your business?

Posted by: DCer | January 8, 2008 2:02 PM

Hello DCer,

Thanks for your concern. This is only one of many public forums where our views genuinely resonate with avid and aware District citizens. Please follow the links below and read. District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC) is a certified local political party duly registered with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. We have Core Beliefs, a Platform with Principles, and detailed Bylaws. All of thsi and more is presented on our website. Moreover, our only "business" is being effective advocates, activists, and catalysts for genuine good governance, full accountability, fiscal responsibility and true democracy for every District citizen.

District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control

DCBOEE Minor Parties

DCBOEE Certification

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 9, 2008 8:08 PM

The problem with emergency fixes can be ignoring the need for maintenance. When a flood of money comes in from outside, it doesn't necessarily dwindle to a constant flow sufficient to fight entropy, but dries up entirely.

I suggest the Post take a look every June 15th at whether the new facilities are being maintained.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw | January 11, 2008 3:46 PM

i dont support her at all...
we need these schools...
ya'll probally finished talking about ya'll agree...
can we finish getting our educaution...

Posted by: d.c. student | January 15, 2008 10:41 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company