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Schools Monday: Hope & Expectations in D.C.

A year after their new mayor swept into office with a powerful mandate to attack low achievement and all too much scandal in the city's schools, D.C. residents have markedly divided expectations and judgments about Adrian Fenty and his new chancellor, Michelle Rhee.

A Washington Post poll conducted last week and published Sunday shows that both Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee enjoy remarkably high scores and are still riding a wave of optimism among city residents, even as those same residents say the troubled school system is the District's #1 problem.

It's the classic split between the person and the job they're doing: The poll demonstrates that city residents believe Fenty and Rhee are doing a good job, even as the same survey shows a higher level of dissatisfaction with the public schools than with any other aspect of city government about which the poll inquired. (For example, 71 percent of those polled said the District's schools were doing a "not good" or "poor" job, while only 37 percent made that harsh judgment about the city's police.)

With Rhee and Fenty holding 23 simultaneous hearings this Thursday to let the public vent over the proposed shuttering of that number of schools, it would seem that antipathy toward the dynamic duo's sometimes cavalier approach to criticizing the school system would be at its high. Yet Rhee enjoys support from 59 percent of those polled, better than the D.C. Council, better than Anthony Williams in his last year as mayor, way better than Marion Barry in his final four years as mayor, and way, way better than chief financial officer Nat Gandhi.

Only Fenty himself, with a 72 percent approval rating, tops Rhee in job performance. Yet when the poll asked residents whether Fenty is doing a good job specifically in improving the public schools, the approval numbers drop to 52 percent--still strong, but well under the personal marks that the mayor and chancellor get.

What does all that mean? It means most residents really like Fenty and Rhee and have embraced their energy and their promises of quick and deep change. It means that the outcry from unions and a small group of activists who have opposed the new team's efforts to clean house in the central office and to sweep away the obstacles to improving the physical plants and the teaching corps in the schools may be loud, but does not represent the bulk of city residents.

But it also means that residents have been here before, that they know the depth of the problems facing the schools and that they understand that you can clean up the buildings, add decent sports facilities, restore arts and physical education classes, and hire a better caliber of teachers--and still, you would face very tough problems involving kids from dysfunctional homes and parents who don't get involved in their kids' education.

The most optimistic finding in the survey is the fact that D.C. residents, who for many years ranked education as less--and even sometimes much less--important than curbing crime, now view the schools as the city's #1 problem, "the one you want the mayor to work the hardest to solve," in the words of the poll question. Back in the Barry era, D.C. residents clamored for attention to be paid to basic city services, as well as to creating jobs, improving schools and cutting violence. In the Williams years, marks for services went way up, so the poll results on this question during his two terms in office tended to focus on demands for affordable housing, anti-crime efforts and better schools. Today, it's all about schools, with crime coming in a distant second and no other issue drawing much concern, not even the perennial problems of housing, jobs and poverty.

All this should give Rhee and Fenty a big boost as they move into the implementation of their two big reform initiatives of the coming months--closing underused and expensive schools, and clearing out the incompetents in the system's central office. But the powerfully high numbers of residents who want to see improvements in the schools are also a cause for concern for the mayor and chancellor because if they don't deliver, or if their structural reforms fail to boost achievement and student safety, this time the whole city is watching and expecting something.

How closely are D.C. residents watching? Check out this result from the poll. Asked for their impression of the job that D.C. council chairman Vincent Gray is doing, fully half--52 percent--of those who were asked about Gray without being given his job title offered no opinion. Asked about Rhee, who has bee n in Washington for only six months, only 12 percent of those polled came up with no opinion. That's even far better than Joe Gibbs, the retiring Redskins coach who drew a "no opinion" from 33 percent of those polled. Pressure enough?

By Marc Fisher |  January 14, 2008; 7:06 AM ET
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While I agree that it is encouraging to see education listed as the top issue needing the mayor's attention, there remains a stark divide between black Washington -- where crime and education are almost of equal concern -- and white Washington -- where education is by far the top issue. I believe expectations are a key differentiator. Many black citizens would be happy if they could live peacefully in their neighborhoods without fear of gunshots or crime, while many white citizens, already feel safe enough, and expect more from the education system. The poll for me highlighted the continuing divide in DC between black and white and the expectations of each demographic. Maybe, if the Post divided respondents further -- by income for example -- more details could be discerned.

Posted by: Simon | January 14, 2008 9:32 AM

Simon: the exact opposite could just as easily be true. Perhaps white citizens used to be less apt to express mortal concern about education, since so few of their kids are actually in the system, and therefore put more emphasis on public safety. If your kid goes to prep school and is more or less assured of going to a good college and getting a decent job, why would public education be your top household concern?

Recently the media has focused a lot more attention and effort on the DCPSs, on spelling out the system's problems in black & white for all to see. That, plus skyrocketing costs of private education, could lead to increased concern about the public schools from people who have historically not participated directly in DCPS.

In other words, the shift in the polls could just as easily be explained by a shift in white citizens' priorities as black citizens'.

It seems clear the shift is taking place on both "sides", and at any rate I think parsing the polls by race or income would only muddy the survey's message that the schools are the #1 priority for most residents. Is it possible, just maybe, that white and black residents actually agree on something?

Posted by: Dr. Doh | January 14, 2008 11:18 AM

While I agree that it is encouraging to see education listed as the top issue needing the mayor's attention, there remains a stark divide between black Washington -- where crime and education are almost of equal concern -- and white Washington -- where education is by far the top issue.

As a Ward 1 resident, I find that there is little difference on a block that's 50% white and 40% African-American. Education is #1 because crime isn't an issue.

The segregated Washington of 1987 isn't so segregated in 2007. Attitudes won't be that divergent anymore.

When I moved to Washington, DC, buying the house (and commute) I dearly loved, I decided that when the time came I could budget the $15,000 per year per student that Sidwell Friends charged at the time of my purchase. However, Sidwell now charges after donations, $30,000 per student or roughly $60,000 per year for a family with two kids. I am not poor, but I cannot afford $60,000 for private school.

None of my friends with kids in private schools pay less than $20k per student unless they have a scholarship.

Contrast this to friends in another city who pay a "whopping" $10,000 per child per year for their prep school.
The reality is that the DC private schools have priced themselves out of the range of the upper middle class parents. Therefore, education has become my #1 priority.

Posted by: DCer | January 14, 2008 1:04 PM

I don't know, there just continues to be something really slick and facile about the Post's coverage of this issue. It's not nearly specific enough and seems to want to sort of flush Fenty's solution (which IMHO is eventual privatization) through as an inevitable no-brainer. At times like these, I really miss a true alternative, responsible media outlet. For instance, there is no, none whatsoever, mention of the value of public schools and the need to keep them public. There are no SPECIFICS about what is different in Fenty's plan, aside from closing schools and firing people. I mean, good to get rid of dead wood, but apart from that, so what? HOW will the system be changed? Sometimes it feels like I live in some tinpot little place that is hardly real. And that no one really cares enough to sit down and take this thing seriously.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 14, 2008 5:08 PM

The Fiscal and Educational Consequences of Closing D.C. Schools

Education Week rated D.C. public schools near the bottom with a D+ as one of the nation's worst performing school systems in its detailed 2008 annual 50-state report. Despite the devastating details, mayor Fenty's takeover team of Michelle Rhee, Victor Reinoso, Allen Lew, and de facto mayor Dan Tangherlini uses the logic that fewer public schools and educators will raise the educational status of the District of Columbia. Clearly, closing schools is not the answer.

Schools that are under-enrolled can be modified to serve younger learners in the day, as well as job training and remedial education programs for adults during the evening. However, mayor Fenty and his takeover team have no clue or real plan about the logisitics of academic excellence. After one year, we clearly have elected and appointed officials that are running a major national and world capital like a small rural county.

There's a lot to be said about D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee's meetings on school closings. Having attended a few, it's abundantly clear that the takeover team also has no clue about communicating with District communities, or the D.C. Council. Justified suspicion comes from their secrecy and a clear lack of transparency. In fact, the more Rhee and associates talk (or don't talk), the more you realize they don't have an actual comprehensive plan of their own. It's amateur hour in the nation's capital, and there are truly weak checks and balances from our councilmembers.

The heavy hostility and fearful questions from a variety of parents, across all 8 wards, has been hard to bear even for one evening's meeting. There's a definite sense of betrayal, disgust and dictatorship behind the feelings of parents and educators who expected a partnership with Fenty's takeover team. You don't hear much about "parent involvement" from officials anymore. Parent questions are usually answered with scripted responses providing no indication about real intentions.

Now, the takeover team seeks to create more purposeful chaos, a classic divide and conquer tactic, by having only one mass meeting for hundreds of disgusted parents from 23 schools on January 17. Clearly, the takeover team is in violation of DC Official Code Title 5, Chapter 36, Closing Public Schools - Sec. 3600.4, Sec. 3602.1, Sec. 3607.2, Sec. 3608.4, and Sec. 3608.6.

However, through all of the takeover team's rhetoric, violations, dodging and purposeful manipulation, has anyone thought about what's really going on? Have we thought outside this box, or even about the box itself? Closing public schools is not a minor matter. The price for implementing desperate and undisclosed solutions has unintended major educational and fiscal consequences. We've been here before. Therefore, here are five critically important questions to consider in 2008, and before our next D.C. election:

1) What happens if the District's family population rises and there are not enough nearby schools, operating revenue, school personnel, and property space to build schools?

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

3) Are mayor Adrian Fenty, the takeover team, some councilmembers and condo developers speculating that mostly or only high income childless couples and singles will gentrify and finance the District?

4) Is the real deal behind the selling of school properties and other taxpayer-owned assets actually due to the D.C. fiscal crisis that Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi knows is coming?

5) are we actually witnessing, but not talking about, America's biggest yard sale of schools and other taxpayer owned properties to raise money for D.C.'s coming fiscal crisis?

What happened to the billions in revenue mayor Fenty and others said was budgeted for school improvements based on dissed and dismissed Superintendent Clifford Janey's plan. Let's not forget about the millions of stolen dollars to be revealed in the ongoing federal investigations and indictments. All of this sounds like a shell game behind a crap game.

The chickens of systemic District government corruption, deception, incompetence and waste are quickly coming home to roost. So, stay tuned, make a fail-safe plan, and hold on to your wallet.

In the meantime, anyone interested in the dirty details of effectively educating and thoroughly preparing our children for a globalized 21st century, read about the ESP (Excellent Schools Plan) Public Academy concept at:

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

Posted by: Dennis Moore DCICC | January 14, 2008 8:15 PM

Creating Excellent D.C. Schools Rather Than Closing Them

What happens if the District's family population rises and there are not enough nearby schools, operating revenue, school personnel, and available space to build schools? What will be the attraction for revenue-generating families to move into the District if there are not enough good and conveniently located schools for their children? Are mayor Adrian Fenty, the takeover team, some councilmembers and condo developers speculating that mostly or only high income childless couples and singles will gentrify and finance the District? What happened to the billions in revenue mayor Fenty and others said was budgeted for school improvements based on dissed and dismissed Superintendent Dr. Clifford Janey's plan?

As expressed before Monday's (January 14th) D.C. Council, chancellor Michelle Rhee continues to be in denial about the reasons for deep disgust over school closings. Citizen digust in deeply rooted in not being actual partners in the decision process on public matters that affect the public. It's just that simple. No doubt, secrecy, deception and being the newest member of serial outsiders dictating changes over our city and children has not enhanced her efforts. Therefore, it's time to pause and back up a bit and consider at least one citizen's idea beyond closing schools, and cashing-out taxpayer owned property to private developers.

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 DCICC | January 14, 2008 10:24 PM


red, white and blue irrational text is still irrational. I read your article and it's short on everything except words. Sorry. Not buying the conspiracy.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 14, 2008 10:45 PM

Marc, your comments in support of Rhee as well as Post editorials, reflect an intellectual hypocrisy. Your comments show how disconnected you and The Editorial Board of the Post are to the views of African Americans in this City.

Posted by: Robert Brannum | January 15, 2008 7:25 AM

Dress it up in indignant anger of secret plots, rascism and exclusion as much as you wish, but in the end you are arguing for the status quo in a system that is failing our children. The protests against the school closing have been anything but overwhelming. 50 people does not constitute a major protest. It simply includes some really loud people. Let's see, 23 schools, about 200 kids per school, about 2 family members per child equals roughly 9,200 potential protestors. So, about .05% of those adults impacted showed up. Maybe the other 99.5% are asking different questions, like "how will the new math science programs help my child succeed?" "What opportunities will the closings create that simply don't exist in my school today?" Can you really make these changes as quickly as you say, so my child can benefit?"

You say the Post is giving to much credit to Rhee; I say the Post is giving the anti-school reform point of view more credit and ink than it deserves without asking any hard questions of the people that are squeaking the loudest.

Posted by: Simon | January 15, 2008 12:05 PM

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