An All-Too-Quiet Reaction Over D.C. Schools' Future

Council member Marion Barry at first said,
Council member Marion Barry at first said, "The chancellor's just being bullheaded" about the school closings but later changed his mind. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 3, 2008

T he big protest rally was supposed to draw thousands of people, but only dozens showed up. The boycott was going to paralyze the school system, but hardly anyone noticed. The city sent top administrators to every neighborhood to conduct 23 simultaneous public hearings, and at some places, not a single person showed up -- not one.

When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed shutting down 23 of Washington's most egregiously underenrolled schools, knee-jerk politicians predictably behaved like those unscrupulous drivers who shout about whiplash after somebody glances their fender.

Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, still the reigning champion of winning time on the TV news, issued one outraged statement after another, showed up at every protest and, as late as Thursday, was on the tube railing against Rhee: "The chancellor's just being bullheaded. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"

Less than 24 hours later, a different Barry shook the mayor's hand and stepped before the cameras at a news conference announcing the final list of schools to be closed. "This is a historic day," the Mayor for Life said with a big smile. "Mayor Fenty took the bold action of making education number one." The closings -- the very same closings Barry had spent the previous two months slamming at every turn -- were suddenly an essential, empowering act of excellence.

"We have not a broken system, but a very, very, very broken system," Barry explained.

But wait -- weren't you just on the other side? Weren't you talking about how you, the parents and the whole city would fight to the end against shutting down 20 percent of the system?

"You're not going to satisfy everybody," Barry said. "Quite frankly, how we went through this was tame compared to what's happened when they did this in the rest of the country. People lost friendships behind it. But this is a victory for our children. . . . I'm delighted to be able to join in this situation."

"I thought that was fascinating," Rhee told me after watching the Barry pivot. (Hey, she's new in town.)

All Fenty would say when I asked about Barry's latest switcheroo was that the former mayor had "a pretty different tone" now that he saw which way the wind was blowing.

The school closings are no mere breeze. They're the latest gust from a storm system composed of a mayor who won every precinct in the city and a chancellor who has no past and no great desire to have a future in the school superintendent business, credentials that buy an unusual amount of independence.

Rhee and Fenty pushed through the closings of 18 schools this year and five more in the next three years with vastly less opposition than there appeared to be -- "certainly less than the media portrayed," Rhee says.

The news feeds on conflict. When opposition isn't huge, it is sometimes made to look as if it is. At Thursday's rally, TV camera guys coaxed protesters to move closer together so the on-air picture would look like a substantial gathering.

The fact is that despite the loud protests of a relative handful of activists, remarkably few of whom are parents, the overall reaction to Rhee and Fenty's school reform efforts has been a surprising quiet above a foundation of overwhelming support, as measured in last month's Washington Post poll.

If anything, the response to the closings was too quiet. "I would much rather come to a meeting where people are passionate and yelling at me than those rooms I walked into and no one was there to speak for any of the kids," Rhee says. "That was really alarming to me."

The chancellor explains the lack of parent involvement as a failure of the system. "They don't trust the schools or the District, and I understand why. We treat them poorly, with incredible disrespect."

Improving how parents are treated and ratcheting up the academic content are two of Rhee's big goals once she works through the closings.

The system doesn't have the money to add the full range of teachers Rhee wants in every school, but this fall, each school receiving students from closed buildings will be rewarded with several new positions for art, music and gym teachers, as well as nurses, social workers and librarians. That approach -- and not what Rhee calls the "drill and kill" emphasis on test skills that too many systems have adopted in response to the No Child Left Behind testing mania -- is what "creates achievement and teaches a love of learning," she says.

At Ron Brown Middle School, the run-down Northeast facility where Fenty and Rhee announced the final closings list, Principal Darrin Slade says parents understand the connection between shutting down nearly empty buildings and improving programs in the remaining schools. In a building that can handle 983 students, Slade has but 268 -- but rather than being closed, his school will take in students from a neighboring school. That will allow Slade to get the art program he has long wanted, improve his teaching staff and work down his building's maintenance backlog.

"Rhee has already made more positive changes than all the previous superintendents I've seen combined," Slade says.

When we finished talking, we were the only people left on the school's second floor, which has been largely unused for years. Come fall, it will be filled with children and teachers. Nobody will protest that.

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