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

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:

- Her frustration, as a D.C. public schools parent of two daughters, with the bureaucracy in the schools. She complained that registering her children for school "was a nightmare."

- Her displeasure with a vestige of the city's financial control board days that puts the city's chief financial officer, and not Rhee, in charge of school budgets.

- Her speculation that despite all her initiatives, significant improvement might not occur for several years. Experts, she said, told her "realistically, you're not going to see gains until five years out. . . . I do think starting in the '08-09 school year, we'll start to see [test scores] moving in the right direction."

Rhee has been praised and criticized for her get-it-done-now approach. Observers say her style, in contrast with previous school leaders, is to guide public input rather than follow it.

For instance, Rhee is targeting nearly two dozen schools for closure, compared with 11 that closed in 1997 and five in 2006. Unlike former superintendent Clifford B. Janey, who proposed to close the bulk of under-enrolled schools over 10 years, Rhee wants to shutter all but a few by the summer.

Moreover, Rhee rebuffed pleas from some council members to cancel the 23 simultaneous hearings and schedule one citywide session.

"The improvement of public education in the District has to be respectful of all partners. The fact that it is not will guarantee failure," Nathan Saunders, vice president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said in an interview.

"One stakeholder cannot force success in this system by themselves," he added.

Lisa Raymond, a State Board of Education member from District 3, said she has heard from parents who were upset about not being able to influence the planning before the schools were named. "The criticism I've heard from parents is that the strategy of presenting a plan and asking for feedback, it backfired," she said. On major initiatives "that are going to have this kind of citywide impact, that is the time to build your allies," she added.

Enrollment in the school system, which lost about 20,000 students in five years, is down to about 49,600. Rhee said the 23 closings would save the system about $23 million, money that could be reinvested in boosting academics. But, based on what city auditors have said, those savings could be offset by a projected $115 million shortfall in the school system's budget.

Rhee said she is using feedback from parents and teachers at the 23 schools to develop "transition plans." These plans, she said, would include their preferences on programs that would be moved from the closed schools and steps administrators would take to ensure the safety of students in consolidated schools that have neighborhood rivalries.

The consolidated schools, she said, would be beefed up with better academic programs, more art and music classes and a full complement of support staff, such as social workers and counselors.

Commenting on her first months on the job, Rhee said she has introduced initiatives that eventually will "turn the tide." Asked in hindsight whether she would have handled the school closures differently, she said she could have informed council members of the closings before they learned about them in the media.

Nevertheless, she said, she's looking forward, not backward.

"I don't think there's any good way to do this . . . without people feeling frustrated," she said. "This is an incredibly emotional process."

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