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At Dunbar, Janey Spends a Day On the Front Lines of Education

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page B01

Everybody at Dunbar Senior High School kept saying that it was just a normal day yesterday -- but they meant that it was as normal a day as possible with the D.C. superintendent of schools serving as principal.

Clad in a black-and-white checked suit and plum tie, Clifford B. Janey strode out of the frigid wind at 8 a.m. -- "People have a legitimate reason to whine today," he joked -- ready to walk the halls, schmooze with students, visit classrooms, toss around education ideas with administrators and learn about the rhythms of the school.

D.C. schools chief Clifford B. Janey drops in on Mary Nesbit's 10th-grade English class at Dunbar, where students were learning how to construct a short essay. Janey also visited the data management department. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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It was, he said, his first time at Dunbar and a great way for him to learn about the school system he is running. And he wound up with extra time when his weekly Monday lunch date -- Mayor Anthony A. Williams -- canceled at the last minute because of something more pressing.

"Very often, your credibility as a leader is a function of whether you have a read on the pulse and perspectives that originate from schools," Janey said, explaining why he was launching the first of what will be monthly "principal for a day" excursions within the 150-school system.

What's more, he said, he wants the reforms he plans to launch to be more than good ideas on paper.

"You've seen in various districts reforms that were well-designed but did not get much traction," he said. "I believe a large reason for reform and initiatives remaining remote from their well-intended purpose is because they didn't connect with the schools and school communities."

To start making his own connections, Janey toured Dunbar and met administrators in the office of the real principal, Harriett F. Kargbo, who was attending an education workshop.

"It's just a regular day," said Assistant Principal Shawn Pelote, a Dunbar graduate. "It's the Monday before Christmas. This is fun."

Sitting at Kargbo's crowded desk, munching a raisin-and-cinnamon bagel and drinking tea, Janey listened to Pelote make announcements over the public-address system, congratulating one student for winning a $100,000 scholarship to attend Bucknell University, urging students to attend a meeting about a ski trip and disseminating other news.

Later, Janey went to the auditorium to attend a meeting of student leaders from schools across the city -- and got a taste of some of Dunbar's facilities problems. For one thing, the auditorium was dimly lighted, as were many of the halls and rooms at the school. Then, while addressing the crowd from the stage, he was drowned out by what sounded like a rattling heater.

At lunchtime, Janey went to the cafeteria, where students told him of their pride in their school.

Some students had other things on their minds but didn't talk about them, explaining later that they didn't want to be seen as complainers. Sheena Sanders, 16, an 11th-grader, said it was too cold in Dunbar. Tashae Anthony, 16, also an 11th-grader, said that open-space schools such as Dunbar -- built during the 1970s under a now-discarded philosophy that classrooms did not need walls -- "are not a good learning environment" because there are "a lot of distractions."

(Later, Janey commented that open-space schools had turned out to be disasters.)

In the afternoon, Janey visited the 10th-grade English classroom of Mary Nesbit, who was teaching students how to construct a short essay. Janey discussed the idea of making a long essay a graduation requirement and seemed to relish the idea that some teachers thought a 10,000-word requirement was too much. "Maybe 5,000 words," he said with a smile.

Janey also visited the data management department, chatting about efforts he made when he worked in Rochester, N.Y., and Boston to help chronically truant students by allowing them to "buy back" days they had missed by doing extra schoolwork.

Pelote said Dunbar -- which has a 90 percent attendance rate -- would consider such an approach.

The big surprise of the day, he said, was a recognition that many Dunbar staff and alumni remain committed to maintaining high standards at the school, where 65 percent of seniors go on to college.

"The depth of commitment was a very pleasant surprise," he said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company