Successful D.C. School Weighs Charter Bid

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005

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.

"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.

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