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Colbert I. King

What Really Needs Fixing in the D.C. Schools

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page A19

Looking back on the week, D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey might wish to recall the possibly apocryphal words attributed to Gen. George Armstrong Custer when he found himself surrounded by Lakota and Cheyenne Indians at the Little Big Horn: "I've had better days." Clearly, that is true in Janey's case.

It's not every superintendent who can admit to shutting down three schools in one week because of three distinct boneheaded problems.

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First there was the case of Eaton Elementary School in Northwest Washington.

What elementary school principal in his right mind would allow more than 500 mostly stray and feral cats to be surgically sterilized -- complete with flying fur and splattering blood -- in his school's cafeteria? That's what happened at Eaton last weekend. The cleanup of medical waste -- disinfecting the floors and walls with bleach, washing the carpet and filtering cat dander out of the air -- forced cancellation of classes Tuesday.

Then there was Walker-Jones Elementary. That school in Northwest had to be closed for repairs after students and staff said they were afflicted with headaches, nausea and respiratory problems caused by mold. Why the mold was allowed to collect and remain untreated until it became a health hazard was unexplained. The school's principal took to wearing a face mask to protect himself from the air, even as his students were left to fend for themselves. Lesson for the day, kids: That's called looking out for ol' Numero Uno.

Not to be outdone, Cardozo Senior High School was evacuated in midweek after the discovery of mercury inside the building. Authorities suspect the silvery substance, which can cause serious health problems, was smuggled into the school and deliberately dropped in various places.

In all, more than a thousand students were shut out of school this week. Yet the closings may not have been the worst news to greet Janey, who just took over the job in September.

The development that could have the most far-reaching effect on the D.C. school system was reported in a story this week by Post staff writer Valerie Strauss: Wilson Senior High School is considering abandoning the traditional school system and becoming a public charter school. Now, that item should get the attention of all champions of the city's public schools, especially those who become apoplectic at the mere mention of changes in school governance. The elected-vs.-appointed school board issue pales against the threat of the system losing its flagship school. Wilson is the best all-purpose public high school the District has. Lose Wilson to the charter school movement and watch the conversion of additional schools, along with the departure of concerned parents and achieving students.

Wilson's final decision is a long way off. But if Wilson, which has the highest standardized-test scores of all the all-purpose high schools, should opt out, the traditional public school system will suffer most. That is a huge hole to fill. And the fault will rest not with Wilson's local school restructuring team or Wilson's parents and faculty, who must approve the switch. The fault will lie within the building Janey occupies: the public school system's central office on North Capitol Street.

One of Janey's chief goals, Strauss reported, is to bring all of the city's 150 schools under one umbrella -- the central office.

Memo to Janey: Sir, the umbrella leaks. Your central administration is regarded by some principals as being about as useful as a heart attack. Sending work orders to the central administration is tantamount to throwing confetti from the Washington Monument. Get books and supplies from downtown on time? Expect hell to freeze over first. Want help with quality professional development for teachers? Better to ask Santa Claus.

Central administration bureaucrats live to nitpick and to say no. They love their titles as they love themselves and groove over their ability to hide from schools and parents behind the wonders of voice mail. Their biggest kick is when they get a chance to lord it over school staff members who are doing the heavy lifting.

Janey, it is said, regards schools that create their own programs as practicing "free agency." He told The Post that he hopes to eliminate the attitude of "Let's do it around and away from the district office." Said Janey: "That 'us versus them' culture has to be changed."

Could be he's right. But Janey should also consider the possibility that what really needs changing is the culture in his central administration. Their job is to support and serve, not posture, strut and obstruct. That lesson has not been taught, at least not successfully.

It's great that the traditional school system has to face competition from the charter school movement. The fact that parents seeking the best for their children are willing to consider alternatives is no disgrace. The real shame is that the D.C. public school system has forced individual schools with enterprising principals and staff and committed parents to consider taking their business elsewhere.

Now that's a greater threat to the system than all the cat dander and mold in the city.

kingc@washpost.com


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