Top Issue For D.C. Schools? Parents.

During D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's first year he established the building blocks for his administration, while simultaneously responding to many unexpected challenges.
By David Nakamura and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 21, 2008

Seven in 10 D.C. residents believe the city's public schools are performing inadequately, with the lack of parental involvement still cited as the biggest problem facing the nearly 50,000-student system, a Washington Post poll has found.

Despite widespread concerns, however, 68 percent of those polled believe Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's takeover of the schools will help improve them, and 59 percent approved of the performance of his handpicked schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee.

The poll of 1,000 randomly selected adults took place from Jan. 3 to 8, before last week's public hearings on Rhee's controversial plan to close 23 schools this fall. A vocal group of parents and activists has called the plan insensitive and poorly thought out, and more than 200 boycotted the scheduled hearings Thursday, holding a counter-gathering instead.

Rhee, who said the closings will save money that can be invested in program enhancements, said she will make amendments. But she did not promise to remove schools from the list, as some critics of the closing plan have demanded.

Although relatively hopeful about the future of the education system under Fenty (D), residents remain skeptical of the mayor's performance on education after a year in office, with about half giving him good marks.

The poll also showed that views are divided sharply along racial and socioeconomic lines, and Fenty's approval ratings on school reform falls to 39 percent among parents with students in the public schools.

But little has changed in District residents' perceptions of the biggest problems facing the public schools since Fenty took office. As in July 2006, about three-quarters called the condition of buildings and other facilities, the lack of parental involvement, disruptive students, and the presence of violence or crime "big problems."

In a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors last week, Rhee said she was not surprised that public school parents were the most frustrated.

"We've made a lot of improvements, but fundamentally we have not changed the things that matter most: the quality of instruction," said Rhee, who took over in June after Fenty downgraded the school board and took direct control of the system. "Until we do that, we will continue to hear that" frustration.

That might take a while: Rhee said she expects to see signs of academic improvement by the 2008-09 school year, but allowed that it could be eight years before the system is in good shape.

Fenty said his first year in charge of the schools was aimed at getting "controversial, aggressive" policy changes in place.

The mayor has successfully pushed through legislation that gives Rhee authority to fire central office employees more easily, and he has created a separate departme nt in charge of school renovations, headed by Allen Y. Lew. "It's about laying the foundations of change, creating the inertia so the system is set up to go 700 miles per hour and never stop," Fenty said.

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