As Parents Fight School Closings, D.C. Chancellor Says Input Matters

Michelle A. Rhee faces her biggest challenge in her seven months as the District's schools chancellor.
Michelle A. Rhee faces her biggest challenge in her seven months as the District's schools chancellor. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes and Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 17, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that she intends to make "significant changes" in her school closure proposal, but she declined to say whether any of the 23 schools would come off the list, as numerous parents are demanding.

In tackling this highly charged issue, Rhee is facing her biggest challenge to date in her seven-month tenure, and using unprecedented powers in a school system now under the control of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

The chancellor is facing mounting criticism from parents, teachers and some D.C. Council members who say she and Fenty (D) are shutting them out of the decision-making process. That tension is illustrated in tonight's competing public assemblies on the closure proposal: Two council members will host a citywide "Peoples Meeting" that parents called for in opposition to 23 simultaneous hearings that Rhee has scheduled.

As of last night, the "Peoples Meeting" was winning the battle for participants, with 100 scheduled to attend the session at the District Building. Only 75 had registered for the 23 hearings across the city.

Rhee, in a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, said she does review the closing proposal feedback she has received from parents and teachers at more than 25 public and private gatherings, including a 14-hour council hearing Monday. She said the changes she is considering involve suggestions to transfer successful teachers and programs from the closed schools to newly consolidated schools.

"I would be surprised if something comes up [at today's hearings] that I haven't already begun to make some plans around," said Rhee, who has not said when she would forward her recommendations to the mayor. "I cannot possibly take every single thing that a community member or a council member or someone says for me to do and actually enact that."

Rhee said she wants to have the school closings finalized by the end of the month so that parents have the information as they apply for out-of-boundary transfers beginning Jan. 28. Rhee said her staff will also develop a "transition plan" with academic and program details on the consolidated schools, but those plans won't be ready until the spring, after the application process closes in February.

Parents of students at John Burroughs Elementary in Northeast Washington have asked for the school to be taken off the list because it is relatively high-achieving. Other parents have opposed closings because Rhee's consolidation plan would bring together students from neighborhoods with rivalries.

Although Rhee is weighing those arguments, she said: "My job is to hear all the input, and then as the leader, then decide which are the things that I think are going to move student achievement forward in this district. And I have to make those decisions. That doesn't mean that I'm not listening. It just means I have to choose to take into consideration all of that input."

Rhee, 38, said she is looking at school-improvement models in Chicago, New York, Denver and Cleveland. She has hired several senior staff members from Cleveland.

Along with the closings, Rhee is pushing forward on two other controversial issues. The council recently gave her authority to expedite the firing of central office staff she deems incompetent, and she is drafting proposals to overhaul 27 schools that failed to meet academic targets under federal law for five or more consecutive years.

During the 90-minute meeting, Rhee discussed a number of other issues:

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