Staff and parents at Wilson Senior High School have learned not to expect help from the District's central school administration when a problem arises.
Multiple orders to fix the roof have been ignored, so water cascades into the building during thunderstorms. The communications system works only sporadically, so sometimes nearly half of the school's teachers have no e-mail access to contact parents or one another. A desperate plea for copy paper had to be posted on a parent Internet listserve.
Yuliya Romanova, 18, right, takes French in a classroom in need of repair at Wilson Senior High School in Northwest. Supplies and support have proven elusive.
(Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
"Al Qaeda is better supplied," quipped Chuck Samuels, co-chairman of Wilson's Local School Restructuring Team.
The final straw came when the central administration ordered Wilson to cut $1 million from its budget last year because of a systemwide budget shortfall, forcing the school to lay off 15 percent of its teachers.
Now the restructuring team, which makes key decisions about school operations, has launched a study of whether Wilson should seek to leave the traditional system and become a public charter school. Such a decision would require approval from two-thirds of parents and two-thirds of faculty.
Losing Wilson would be a serious blow to the school system. Viewed as the city's flagship comprehensive high school, Wilson has the highest standardized-test scores of the non-specialized D.C. public high schools and is by far the most diverse, with students from every section of the city.
The outcome of the Wilson situation also represents a critical test for D.C. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.
In the fall, Janey took over a system in which curriculum, teacher training and academic standards vary widely among schools because many principals, lacking help from the central office, have had to create their own programs. His goal is to bring all 150 schools under one umbrella, exerting more control over top schools such as Wilson without diminishing their success and providing genuine support for the majority of schools, which are foundering.
"Free agency has been the password and the buzzword: 'Let's do it around and away from the district office,' " Janey said. "And that 'us versus them' culture has to be changed."
Janey's challenge is huge, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit coalition of large urban school districts. Although many cities have had dysfunctional school systems that left individual schools to rise or fall on their own, nowhere has that phenomenon been "more pronounced" than in the District, Casserly said.
Indeed, principals, teachers and parents at District schools have learned to fend for themselves.
Horace Mann Elementary School Principal Sheila Ford, for example, persuaded other principals last year to pool their funds to bring in a renowned reading educator after concluding that she could not depend on the central office for quality professional development for teachers. Staff and parents at Murch Elementary School acquired computers and an online reading program, using the program despite opposition from central administrators.
At Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which relies on private and nonprofit funding to pay for its renowned academic and arts programs, Principal Mitzi Yates said she makes decisions on her own. "I don't take 'no' for an answer," she said. "I believe you do it first and you ask for forgiveness later."
The problem with schools floating in their own orbit, Janey said, is that students end up losing out.
Programs are so different that students moving from an algebra course at one school to the same course at another school would feel as if they're on a different planet, Janey said. A 2004 report by Casserly's group noted that D.C. students don't even have to take algebra; they can instead take its "equivalent," and principals have latitude in determining what that is.
Moreover, Janey said, it is impossible to maintain a true system of student, teacher and principal accountability when each school has its own standards for performance.
Janey said he realizes that he must rebuild the credibility of the central office if he is to make the school system less of a hodgepodge. He said he wants successful schools to continue to have a strong say in how they are run. And he plans to allow schools to buy some key items themselves, bypassing the procurement department.
But, he said, some things are non-negotiable. For example, this fall, all schools must implement the new academic standards, borrowed from Massachusetts, that he has brought to the District.
"This is doable," he said. "I've talked to Wilson and other schools on the higher end of the performance end of the food chain. . . . These schools want to be recognized for what they have done, and they want structural support."
If Wilson changes to charter status, it would become the second traditional District public school to do so. Paul Junior High School began operating as a charter in 2000 over the strenuous objections of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of the central administration. The Wilson study will examine, among other things, whether the school would have more or fewer resources by becoming a charter. Although charter schools are shielded from systemwide financial troubles, they must pay for their own security and other functions.
The restructuring team conducting the feasibility study consists of the principal and faculty, parent and student representatives. It will complete its report sometime this fall, Samuels said. If it recommends seeking charter status, the next step would be a vote by faculty and parents. After that, a petition would have to be filed with one of two agencies in the city with the authority to grant charters.
Janey said he hopes to talk Wilson into staying in the fold. Members of the Wilson community said they are open-minded but are looking for fundamental changes in the way the central administration makes basic decisions.
For example, the central office promised books for new classroom libraries, said Marlene Berlin, co-chairman of the restructuring team. It sent boxes of books to Wilson, but the school's experienced librarian was not asked for input, Berlin said -- and nobody provided shelves.
"If we had basic support services and were not always tearing out our hair to get what we need, then all that energy that goes to fighting for what we need could go to educating our kids," Berlin said. "That's all we are trying to do."