The city’s challenge is to transform its long-struggling school system. To do that, school leaders are banking heavily on teachers such as this 11-year veteran, whom they call one of the District’s best. Harrod’s challenge on this morning is to begin creating a world inside her classroom where these preteens can — and want to — learn.
Despite the heavy responsibility, Harrod said she no longer gets first-day jitters.
Except for right now, about 8:45 a.m., this moment before kids file inside to take their seats, when everything is yet to come and feels a little awkward and when lofty goals — inspiring kids to think independently, articulate their ideas and, above all, develop a love of reading — recede behind something more mundane.
To kids, this day might seem like a rapid-fire series of introductions and ice-breakers. But really, it’s about teaching routines — for entering the classroom, storing backpacks, going to the bathroom, moving around the room, turning in homework, joining in group discussions, using shared markers and glue sticks — that the kids will soon do automatically, as if breathing.
“These systems are not meant to limit them — they’re just to help them understand how to navigate their world, navigate the classroom,” Harrod said. “This way all they have to focus on is learning. They don’t have to be stressed out about making a mistake and doing something improperly.”
Five years after then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took control of the D.C. schools, student achievement has risen and more than a dozen crumbling buildings — including three this year in Ward 8 — have been overhauled, giving kids new and gleaming places to learn.
Still, fewer than half of the District’s public school students are proficient in math and reading, and the future contours of public education in the city are far from sure. The 45,000-student system cannot afford to continue operating so many small and under-enrolled schools, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has said repeatedly. More than 40 schools have fewer than 300 students each, and neighborhoods are bracing for school closures.
There are also uncertainties about how to strike the right balance between traditional neighborhood schools and the fast-growing charter sector, about what the teachers’ union will and won’t win in the next round of contract negotiations, about whether political scandals surrounding Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) will distract from or derail reform.
But as kids shouldered backpacks and headed to class Monday, their teachers faced a more immediate issue: What exactly do you do on Day One?
“The first week of school is probably the most important. It sets a tone,” said Frazier O’Leary, a longtime Advanced Placement English teacher at Cardozo Senior High. O’Leary dispenses with formalities on the first day.