D.C. officials unveiled their proposal last night to convert Eastern High School into specialized "academies" focused on health sciences and pre-law. But the reaction from parents, staff and alumni, hardened by years of abortive reform efforts, ranged from noncommittal to hostile.
The District is gradually phasing out the current incarnation of Eastern, one of 10 District high schools under a federal mandate to overhaul its programs because of consistently poor academic performance. The school is closed to ninth-graders this year, and DCPS plans to re-open with a redesigned building and rebooted curriculum in the fall of 2010.
DCPS envisions the reconstituted Eastern as a community of smaller academies, one focused on health sciences--including both pre-med courses and careers in the health industry--and another possibly specializing in law, government and international policy.
Last night officials held the first of an elaborate series of community meetings and small group discussions at the school, aimed at collecting ideas about what the new Eastern should be.
A team of DCPS officials, headed by public engagement chief Peggy O'Brien (a former Eastern teacher) and instructional superintendent John Davis, told an audience of more than 100 that the school was essentially theirs to reimagine. But more than a few in the audience thought that the District's outreach was merely a dog-and-pony show designed to steer them into what is already a done deal. One exercise led by school staff in small discussion groups: "List the words that you would like people to use to describe Eastern high students at Eastern in 2012."
The effort struck some as wheel-spinning.
"Decisions have been made and not advertised in the community. You're orchestrating the process," said Darwin Ross, 37, a member of Eastern's robust and well-organized alumni association. Asked later what decisions he was referring to, he couldn't say.
District officials emphasized that everything is on the table.
"It's not a done deal," Davis told the group. "And if you don't want an academy, we've got to hear that."
James Preston, head of the alumni group, said he believes that Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and DCPS are well-intentioned, but facing a difficult mix of racial and generational politics along with historic mistrust of the school system. He said some African Americans suspect that whites in the gentrifying Capitol Hill neighborhood want to "take over" Eastern. He also said Rhee's hard-charging style, and her troubled relationship with the Washington Teachers' Union, have given the school community pause.
"The labor situation has given people the idea that the Chancellor wants to ramrod things through," said Preston, 62, a 1965 Eastern graduate. He added: "I think she has fresh ideas and creativity. I think her heart is in the right place."