Janey Asks for Time to Turn Around Schools

Clifford B. Janey likened improving schools to running a marathon, requiring
Clifford B. Janey likened improving schools to running a marathon, requiring "a strong foundation . . . an iron will and . . . confidence." (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes and Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In a major address designed to help him keep his job, D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey delivered a robust defense last night of his two-year record as leader of the city's beleaguered school system and urged city leaders to allow him to finish the work he has started to move schools forward.

Janey called for laying "a new foundation" for schools that includes higher academic standards, more rigorous student assessment and modernized facilities. It was his first-ever "State of the Schools" speech, as well as his first formal public statement since his future came into question when Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty said in September that he might seek to take over the schools.

Fenty has been calling for a dramatic shake-up in the school system, saying that reform is moving too slowly. Janey has been walking a fine line attempting to cooperate with Fenty while asserting his position as the city's chief education leader.

In the sweeping 43-minute address to an enthusiastic audience of about 1,000 school staff, parents, students and city leaders at McKinley Technology High School in Eckington, Janey cast himself as a change agent who was moving quickly to restore the rich legacy of a school system that educated leading African American scientists and historians. He responded to criticism that he lacks urgency by using a metaphor of running a race.

"Like training for a marathon, turning our schools around will require that we build a strong foundation, develop an iron will and maintain the confidence that working together we can achieve the required change," Janey said.

Janey made an unmistakable reference to the mayor-elect, saying his own changes have been made with "fleet feet" -- the name of a running store owned by Fenty's parents in Adams Morgan.

Fenty said after the speech that he was "encouraged by Janey's words" but did not think Janey was addressing him directly. "He was speaking to the people of the District of Columbia," Fenty said. Janey has agreed to accompany Fenty on his next trip to New York City early next month as he continues his cross-country exploration of mayoral control of schools.

Last night, Janey outlined several accomplishments: hiring a record 85 principals, rehabilitating more than half of the 90 elementary school libraries and establishing dozens of family literacy centers at schools in Southeast. To several rounds of sustained applause, Janey promised to involve more parents, announcing that a new parent center would open next month and two more would follow.

He also outlined a plan to address failing schools. With 118 of 146 schools identified in the spring as having failed to make academic progress, Janey said that six schools would be overhauled. He said he will intervene next fall in three senior highs, two middle schools and one elementary school, which he did not identify, by replacing the principals and teachers. The intervention, called "reconstitution" or "restructuring," is a remedy under the federal No Child Left Behind law for schools that have failed to make adequate yearly progress on standardized tests for at least four years.

Janey said those schools will have "partial or full replacement of staffs" and will receive more training and funding. The school system is already working with a private contractor to train teachers and tutor students at numerous other low-performing schools.

The District has used that method with various names under various superintendents with little success, said Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who has studied the system. In fact, 11 of the 28 schools eligible for reconstitution -- including Stanton Elementary in Southeast, Lincoln Middle School in Northwest and Woodson Senior High in Northeast -- have been through similar intervention programs, she said.

"The new staff they brought in had not been better than the old staff," Levy said in an interview. "They tend to get new teachers [for the reconstituted schools]. You shouldn't give new teachers the toughest assignments." She added that systemwide disruptions were caused by the dispersal of bad teachers from the reconstituted schools to other city schools.

Janey previously said he would not support a plan calling for stripping the school board's autonomy but would welcome a takeover if it involved removing obstacles that impede his attempts to improve the schools.

School board member Victor A. Reinoso, Fenty's choice for the newly created position of deputy mayor for education, has been a harsh critic of Janey. But last night he said he believed that progress had been made under Janey.

"We want to do everything we can to support that direction [from Janey], but move it along faster," Reinoso said. "We want to strengthen the partnership with him."

The speech was preceded by an upbeat video presentation that included testimonials from city leaders and principals, clips of students conducting science experiments and a bouncy soundtrack of Patti LaBelle's "New Day." The final image was Janey, who said: "You're going to feel so good to dispel the contempt people have for Washington, D.C., schools." When the video ended, Janey emerged from the wings, approached a podium on the stage and smiled as the audience gave him a standing ovation.

"Janey is a seasoned educator," Cherita Whiting, vice president of the citywide PTA, said after the address. "If you're not as seasoned as he is, then how can you come in and take over?"

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company