washingtonpost.com  > Education > District

Three Fired Over Delay In Opening D.C. School

Eastern High Schedules Not Ready

By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page A01

Three officials in the District's school system were fired on the first day of school yesterday, after hundreds of students at Eastern Senior High School were turned away because administrators failed to complete a schedule of classes and room assignments.

A disorganized scene played out in front of the Capitol Hill school over several hours, as police officers and private security guards blocked the doors and told arriving students to go home. Confused parents, who had not been told about the situation, flooded Eastern with telephone calls, overwhelming its voice mail system. Top officials said they were taken by surprise and were not informed about the scheduling problem until hours before classes were to begin.

Students mingle outside after finding out that Eastern High School would not open because of scheduling problems. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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Clifford B. Janey, the incoming superintendent, who officially starts Sept. 15, approved the decision to fire the three officials and said it demonstrated the system's insistence on accountability. "It's far better to abbreviate a relationship that's not working out than to extend it and give the community the pretense that there's really hope," he said.

The officials were identified as Juan R. Baughn, an assistant superintendent for high schools who was hired in March; Norman S. Smith Jr., the principal at Eastern since August 2003; and Henry Thompson, an information technology specialist who joined the school system in 1966.

The unruly situation at Eastern, which has 1,064 students, marred a first day of school that had been anticipated with optimism. Janey, who was hired Aug. 11, crisscrossed the District on a day-long tour of school facilities, and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other city officials announced a major reorganization of school security in response to recent violence in and around school buildings.

Those developments were overshadowed by the disorder at Eastern and the decision to fire the three officials. Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice, who has led the schools since April, dismissed the three after conferring with Janey.

"The school leaders who allowed this unacceptable situation to transpire failed not only my team but the students and parents of D.C. public schools who rely on us," Rice said. "There is no remediation for this kind of failure, and, after a thorough investigation, I have decided to terminate three individuals. I apologize to the students, parents and community for this failure of leadership." He said he expected Eastern to open on time today.

Back-to-school problems have plagued the District before, notably in 1996, when the start of classes was postponed for three weeks by a legal battle over unsafe conditions. In contrast, Rice stressed yesterday that Eastern was the only one of the system's approximately 150 public schools that did not open. "This is the blemish that spoiled the image," he said.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the Board of Education, praised the terminations as a sign that officials are no longer tolerating mismanagement.

"I'm pleased that Dr. Rice took the action and took it immediately, because we've been in a situation for years where there's no accountability," Cafritz said. "I am also very happy that Dr. Janey concurs with Dr. Rice."

Wilma F. Bonner, who has worked for the city's schools since 1976, was named interim principal at Eastern, which is on East Capitol Street. A former principal of Wilson Senior High School and the School Without Walls, two of the city's higher-achieving schools, Bonner is executive director of academic programs and oversees the school system's use of federal grants.

Smith, hired as Eastern's principal last year after a career in Baltimore County, declined to comment yesterday. Thompson did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages.

During his six months on the job, Baughn prepared a reform plan that called for changes in attendance, scheduling and instructional policies at city high schools. He previously worked in Chester, Pa., for Edison Schools Inc., a company hired to run public schools there.

"I love my job," Baughn said in a telephone interview. "I will not say whose fault I think it was. All I will say is: I did as much as I could do to bring Eastern online, and I was devastated to find out that the schedules weren't ready."

High schools were supposed to begin developing their schedules for the new school year in February, give students and teachers preliminary class assignments in June and finalize schedules in August, officials said. The schedules are printed at the school system's central offices, with information supplied by individual schools.

Baughn said he and other officials worked into the night for several days to get Eastern's schedules ready. He learned that they were not ready about 5:30 a.m. yesterday, he said.

"I was in Sunday. I was in every night last week," Baughn said. "I talked with the technical folks, the principal, the people doing the schedule. I don't know what I could have done differently."

Janey said there were multiple failings, chief among them a failure to notify Rice, who said he was told at 6 p.m. Tuesday that the problems at Eastern were being rectified. The dismissals represent an effort "to get at the entire root of the problem, not just the symptoms of the problem," Janey said. He added, "It had to do not only with performance that was unacceptable, but also Dr. Rice being placed in a position where he did not have current, active, timely information."

Outside Eastern, built in 1923, students expressed disappointment about the delay in opening the school. "It's so unorganized," said Makesha Patterson, 17, a senior, who travels to Eastern by subway and bus from her home in Southeast Washington.

"It's kind of upsetting," said Carla Smith, 17, a senior. "I could have stayed home in bed and gotten more sleep," said her cousin Gerald D. Smith Jr., 16, also a senior.

School officials sent faxes to the news media about 7:50 a.m. to announce that Eastern would not be open, but by then, most students were well on their way to school. An automated system that places telephone calls to parents for major school announcements was not activated on time. A small number of special education students received instruction at the school.

In other news, Ramsey and the school system's security director, Theodore C. Tuckson, announced details of a reorganization that will transfer the main responsibility for security from the school system to police. The plan was approved by the D.C. Council this year. Police will provide 99 school resource officers this school year, compared with 72 last year, and the number of police supervisors assigned to the schools will increase from five to 14.

City schools have been grouped into eight "sectors," and security officials have been moved from the school system's central office to those sectors, Tuckson said. Watkins Security Agency Inc. continues to provide security guards who check for weapons and operate metal detectors inside the schools. After Watkins's contract expires in January, Ramsey said, a different company or city employees might be hired to do the job.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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