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More Criticism Over Fenty's Secrecy

The rest of the council first met her yesterday morning about half an hour before the news conference, and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was caught so off guard that he forgot her name. "I've been calling her Helen all day," he said.

Janey, the superintendent whom Rhee would replace, learned late Monday that he was being fired. Parents and hard-core school activists were floored by the news.

"We've had six or seven new superintendents over the past 10 years, and every one of them were interviewed by a panel of community members," said Cherita Whiting, a parent activist. "The mayor denied us that."

The takeover legislation approved by the D.C. Council, which transferred power from the school board to Fenty, stated that the mayor was required to convene a panel of parents, students and teachers union members to help vet the selection.

Fenty, who came under similar criticism for being too secretive about his selection of Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, said he considered roughly 30 potential candidates before settling on Rhee. His aides added that the mayor complied with the takeover legislation by convening a panel that included six people, including Terry Goings, a parent at Coolidge Senior High School.

Goings, who supports Rhee, said yesterday that the panel met once, spoke about the qualities Fenty should look for in a schools chief and did not hear about Rhee until the announcement. They received her résumé yesterday.

Lee Glazer, co-founder of the Save Our Schools coalition, was more startled by the choice than the timing of the decision. "I'm surprised at the individual because she's a nobody with no experience in education," Glazer said.

For the most part, however, parents and public officials said they are willing to support Rhee and give her a chance, even as they acknowledge some doubts about her ability to manage the 11,500-employee school bureaucracy. In selecting Rhee, whose experience working within a school system is limited to three years as a teacher in Baltimore, Fenty bucked tradition. Instead, he followed a trend that began several years ago of big-city mayors naming school chiefs who have not had superintendent experience, education experts said.

Fenty said he was looking for a leader who could offer fresh ideas.

Vanessa Gerideau, a fourth-grade teacher at Benning Elementary, spoke with Rhee during her tour and was excited to learn that they had something in common: Both had participated in the Teach for America program.

"Change needs to happen," said Gerideau, a second-year teacher. She said that she feels supported by her principal and colleagues but that the school system needs to do more for teachers.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said some of his constituents are concerned with Rhee's ethnic background. As a Korean American, Rhee will be the first non-black chief in four decades in the predominantly African American school district.

"Those are the first obvious things people are going to ask. Can you deal with the African American children in our system?" Thomas said.

But he said his answer, for now, is that she appears to care about all children. "We all want the same basic things for our children," Thomas added. "She's a mother. That's a good thing. She said she is going to put her children in our schools. That's a better thing. She's putting her own sweat equity in this."

Rhee's longtime allies predicted that she would overcome any doubts.

"What you see in Michelle is constant processing and understanding what's going on and how to do it better," said Kati Haycock, chairman of the New Teacher Project's board of directors. "She wants to get to what's important -- the bottom line. And the bottom line is getting really good teachers for kids. On that kind of focus, she's relentless."

Staff writers Ashlee Clark, Theola Labbé and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

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