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Nonprofit Groups May Run Failing D.C. Schools
Rhee Is Weighing Several Options

By Theola Labbé and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is considering bringing in national nonprofit charter school operators to manage at least two dozen of the city's lowest-performing schools, one of the first indications of how she might proceed in reforming the 49,600-student school system.

The charter operators were one of several options for improving failing schools that Rhee outlined Monday to school leaders at Roosevelt and Cardozo high schools, according to Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. The Northwest schools are among those in the system that have not reached benchmarks in reading and math test scores in the past five years.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that fail to reach benchmarks for five straight years enter into "restructuring" mode. In that phase, the school system must devise a plan that changes the schools' governance structure, replaces most of their staff, contracts with an education management organization to operate the schools or turns the schools over to the state. In the meeting with school leaders, Rhee outlined how those options could work in the District.

Hobson emphasized yesterday that Rhee was not leaning toward any particular option and that no decisions had been made on how to handle the low-performing schools.

"This was the first meeting, and it was basically to get input from the community," Hobson said. "All she did was talk through the options under the U.S. Department of Education."

Cardozo teacher Kerry Sylvia, who chairs the school's Local School Restructuring Team, which includes teachers, parents and administrators, said that if she had been given more notice about the meeting, held on the morning of Veterans Day when schools were closed, she could have been better prepared to discuss the options.

"If I had known that we were going to have this kind of meeting, I would have looked up the law to see exactly what it said and seen what other school systems similar to us have done," Sylvia said. "I just felt like she was coming to the table with something and we were empty-handed."

Sylvia said that the discussion at Cardozo lasted for a little more than an hour and that there were four teachers and one parent present. Hobson said a larger series of citywide meetings is planned.

Cathy Reilly, a school advocate at Roosevelt and director of Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, a nonprofit group focused on high school reform, wrote in an e-mail yesterday to alliance members that Rhee talked with the restructuring team to "get their thoughts and preferences prior to her decision."

"She was very clear, however, that the decision was her decision," Reilly wrote.

State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist, who monitors how the school system addresses its failing schools, said yesterday that she was not surprised by any of the options Rhee was weighing. She said she had spoken to her twice yesterday and that her staff was working closely with school officials on the plans Rhee was considering.

Hobson said there are 25 traditional public schools in the restructuring phase, while state education officials put the number at 27. Four charter schools have also failed to meet testing benchmarks.

The charter schools and the D.C. system must turn in their restructuring plans to Gist by the end of the month.

"This is the planning year, but there is no more room for talk," Gist said. "I expect to see action."

According to Hobson, Rhee told the parents and teachers she met with Monday that three nonprofits potentially could run some D.C. schools: St. Hope, a charter operator in Sacramento; Green Dot, which operates 12 charter schools in the Los Angeles area; and Philadelphia-based Mastery Charter Schools.

Rhee has a personal connection with St. Hope. She recruited teachers for St. Hope in her former position as chief executive and president of the nonprofit New Teacher Project. She also was a board member of St. Hope for about a year until she was appointed chancellor, according to a St. Hope official.

At her confirmation hearing before the D.C. Council in June, former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who serves as president and chief executive of St. Hope, flew from California to testify on her behalf.

St. Hope recently started operating in New York City. In a statement, a St. Hope spokeswoman said the organization is "certainly open to considering Washington DC as another expansion site given the great things that are happening."

Steve Barr, chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, said a woman from the District called him about four months ago inquiring about his services. The organization offers a prep school program for 4,000 students at formerly failing traditional public schools in troubled urban areas such as Watts. "I talked to . . . somebody with D.C. public schools. We had a half-hour conversation," Barr said, adding that the woman, whose name he couldn't recall, never asked the group to work with D.C. schools and never called back.

Mastery has 1,500 students in grades seven to 12 in four charters, three of which were converted from failing traditional schools. Ben Rayer, chief operating officer for Mastery, said Rhee contacted the organization.

"All I know is the chancellor has e-mailed the CEO of Mastery," Rayer said. "I'm sure there is no contract or agreement."

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