Bill Kerlina won a plum assignment when he was hired away from Montgomery County in July 2009 to become a principal in Northwest Washington. Phoebe Hearst Elementary was a small, high-performing school, right across the street from Sidwell Friends.
He grew to love its students, teachers and — for the most part — its parents.
“If I could lift that school up and put it in a functional school system, it would be perfect,” he said.
Instead, he said, the dysfunction he encountered in D.C. public schools led him to quit this month, fed up and burned out.
Principals in the District and other cities leave all the time, for a range of reasons. At least 20 of the District’s 123 public schools will have new leaders when classes begin in late August.The churn is especially heavy at low-performing schools. A 2010 study showed that nearly two-thirds of Chicago’s struggling schools had three or more principals in the past decade.
But Kerlina, a baby-faced 39, is leaving Hearst, not a struggling school in a poor neighborhood. He’s also leaving education altogether after 17 years — to go into the gourmet cupcake business.
Usually, resignations and firings unfold in silence, with officials citing privacy laws and educators reluctant to burn bridges. But a series of interviews with Kerlina offers a rare view of D.C. reform from an insider talking out of school.
He said he is quitting a system that evaluates teachers but doesn’t support their growth, that knuckles under to unreasonable demands from parents, and that focuses excessively on recruiting neighborhood families to a school where most students come from outside the attendance zone.
Kerlina said his two years left him with high blood pressure, extra pounds from a stress-induced diet of Armand’s and McDonald’s lunches, and a sense that life is too short. He is quick to acknowledge that he was far from the perfect principal and that his grievances may strike some as whiny or carping. He also acknowledges that money figured into his discontent: He said he was hired with the promise of making more than his $94,995 annual salary.
Other principals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating school system leadership, said they understand Kerlina’s frustrations.
“He’s a loss,” said one veteran principal. “Bill was a tremendously bright guy.” But, the principal added, the District can be a shock to administrators from smooth-running suburban systems.
Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that she was surprised by Kerlina’s resignation and that it was the first she’d heard of his unhappiness. She also said she was disappointed that he didn’t air his grievances more fully before he made his decision. Working in the District, she acknowledged, poses challenges.
“I guess that we all know everything ain’t for everybody,” Henderson said. “DCPS is a work in progress. Not everybody is willing to lead under the circumstances we ask them to lead under, in a developing urban school district. It is much different than a place where things are completed and fully successful.”
Hearst parents and teachers said they were disappointed. PTA President Jen Wilcox said Kerlina’s open-door policy, his efforts to upgrade classroom technology and his easy, energetic manner with kids made him “a breath of fresh air.”
“He cared about children, and he was a hard-working principal,” veteran teacher Bill Rope said. “He didn’t leave because he wanted to make cupcakes.”
Kerlina taught grade school in Montgomery, rising to assistant principal at Takoma Park Elementary. By 2009, he felt ready to move up, but principal turnover was low in the county. Kerlina was also intrigued by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s vow to close the black-white achievement gap. He joined a contingent of Montgomery educators who signed on with Rhee, including Dawn Ellis, who left as Murch Elementary principal this month.
Kerlina said his interview with Rhee was brief. She quizzed him about reading scores at Takoma Park and asked what he would do for scores at Hearst, where reading proficiency on the citywide test in 2009 was 80 percent and math proficiency was 92 percent. He promised to at least hold them steady. But they fell, along with elementary scores throughout the city. Reading proficiency dipped five percentage points in 2010, and math proficiency fell to 67 percent.
Kerlina signed on just as Rhee was rolling out the IMPACT evaluation system, which called for five classroom observations to assess criteria such as clarity of presentation, content knowledge and ability to teach children with varying skill levels. Some teachers would be held accountable for student growth on standardized tests. Those with poor evaluations were subject to dismissal.
It was a major change.Kerlina said he was surprised when he heard it would not be tried on a pilot basis, which was standard practice in Montgomery. He said he came to believe that the initiative offered virtually no provisions to help teachers improve.
“The reform, in my opinion, is getting rid of people,” he said.
D.C. officials dispute that, pointing to mentors, instructional coaches and master educators who are available, along with professional development courses offered by the District and the Washington Teachers’ Union. Video clips of teachers who earned top ratings also will be made available in the coming school year.
Kerlina said that he had good relations with most parents but that some could be a trial.
One parent called his cellphone over Memorial Day weekend to complain that a tutor from Sidwell had not shown up at Hearst for her child that Friday. Another couple was convinced that delays by teachers in writing private-school references had ruined their child’s chances. Kerlina said he called each of the schools to assure them the applications were on time.
More problematic, Kerlina said, were parents who went straight to the central office without trying to speak to him. D.C. principals are often undermined, he said, by a system that indulges questionable parent behavior.Kerlina criticized the school system’s “critical response team,” which he described as a cadre of young staff with little school-level experience.
“If they call, you know you’re going to be told you did something wrong,” he said.
Henderson said the team was formed because of a long, dismal legacy of D.C. schools not returning parents’ calls. “Our role is not to frustrate our principals,” she said.
In April, Kerlina said, the response team told him to readmit a student who had been removed from Hearst two months earlier after an investigation found that his family lived in Prince George’s County. Kerlina said team member Jared Solomon told him the family had established residence in Southeast Washington.
Kerlina wondered why the student, who had originally come to Hearst through the out-of-boundary lottery, was not sent to his neighborhood school, Moten Elementary @ Wilkinson. Hearst had a long waiting list, he said, and the student in question was a “behavior nightmare.”
“It’s in the best interests of the child,” Kerlina recalled Solomon saying.
“I have the best interests of a school to think about,” Kerlina said.
Soon after the student returned to Hearst, Kerlina said, he was suspended for stabbing another student with a pen.
Solomon, who no longer works for the system, could not be reached to comment.
A few days before he quit, Kerlina received his annual evaluation from Instructional Superintendent Amanda Alexander. It was a positive appraisal, school officials confirmed, and Henderson sent Kerlina a letter of reappointment. But Alexander raised a concern, he said: Why were there not more white families at Hearst?
The question is sensitive in the D.C. system, where only about a third of students attend neighborhood schools. It is especially sensitive in affluent and largely white areas of Northwest Washington. At Hearst, 70 percent of the 241 students come from outside the neighborhood. Most are African Americans.
D.C. officials say they simply want more neighbors in neighborhood schools. But Kerlina took offense at Alexander’s question, which implied that as a white male, he should have been more successful at recruiting. The next day, in an e-mail to Alexander that he wrote but decided not to send, he laid out a taxonomy of Northwest parents in an effort to show the hurdles to recruiting more neighborhood families.
The well-to-do private school families, “the majority” in the neighborhood, he wrote, were a lost cause. “I have not courted them and do not plan to do so, since they will never consider DCPS,” Kerlina wrote.
Next were those afflicted with what he called “Murch and Eaton envy,” a reference to two much-in-demand Northwest elementary schools. He told Alexander that six in-boundary families had enrolled at Hearst for the fall but pulled out when slots at Eaton and Murch opened up.
“I have been working with these families but it’s hard to change a culture of thoughts and ideas,” he wrote.
Finally, he wrote, there were families with racial prejudices. He said this conclusion came from a series of conversations he had with prospective neighborhood parents “that delicately asked about the number of out-of-boundary families and made reference to the ‘diversity’ of Hearst.”
“They will never come to Hearst because of the number of out-of-boundary black families,” he wrote.
One way to lure neighboring families — restricting the number of out-of-boundary seats — would be a “horrible mistake,” Kerlina wrote, as “the diversity at Hearst is what makes it a great school.”
He offered another solution: Move the school toward “inquiry-based learning,” stressing group activities, hands-on projects and student curiosity. It’s standard practice, he said, at the private school across 37th Street NW.
“The reason people spend [more than $30,000] a year to send their children to Sidwell is because they believe in inquiry-based learning,” Kerlina wrote. “DCPS does not — the approach is too scripted and doesn’t allow for students to think outside of the box.”
Alexander declined to comment.
There was no real tipping point, Kerlina said, just an accumulation of frustrations. He said his last goodbyes Monday afternoon, after the final half-day of classes. Around 4, he walked the halls one more time, turning off lights and shutting doors. As he drove away, he said later, he realized that he had heard nothing from any D.C. school official in two weeks. A minor slight, but telling, in his view.
His cupcake shop in Howard County will be called Cooks ‘n Cakes.
A search is underway for another principal. A panel of parents and staff interviewed candidates last week. Wilcox, the PTA president, said she is concerned that what drove Kerlina away could lead to more turnover. “What does this mean for our next principal?” she asked. “What’s to prevent what happened with Bill from happening to the next person?”