Rhee Weighs Ideas to Fix 27 Schools

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

Here's what life could be like in low-performing District schools this fall:

Students at six elementary schools would get scripted lessons, dictating what teachers should say and how the class should respond.

In 11 troubled middle schools, students would spend evening, weekend and summer hours in classrooms, and those who are overage for their class would be placed in a special program.

Students at 10 senior highs would select one of three self-contained, career-themed schools-within-a-school in the buildings, each with separate principals and staffs.

These, according to D.C. school system officials, are among dramatic changes proposed this fall for 27 schools that have missed reading and math targets for at least five consecutive years. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the system must select one of five "restructuring" remedies for each of the schools: converting it to a charter school, hiring an education-management firm to run it, replacing all its staff, turning it over to the state (or in the District's case, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education) or devise another plan.

The first four options are considered governance changes designed to jolt schools out of failure, experts say. But the vast majority of schools nationwide under the program use the decidedly least aggressive fifth option of designing their own programs, which often focus mainly on training teachers. The U.S. Education Department discouraged D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee from using the fifth option because it has a poor track record across the country, said her spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson. Very few schools are under state takeover because state education departments are not equipped to manage a local district, experts say.

"What we have found is that none of these options is better than the other," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy and research organization. "It just takes a lot of time and a lot of effort" to improve a school.

Although Rhee does not plan to specify the remedy for each school until May, Tracy Martin, the system's chief of schools, said "it could involve curriculum changes, additional services, extended learning time or extensive staff development. There are a ton of intervention programs."

Last month, review teams of D.C. parents, teachers and education experts from outside the city visited all 27 schools, examining test data, observing classrooms and interviewing students about their education. The teams will write a report on the schools, rating each on instruction, climate and parent involvement. Rhee will use the reports and ratings to help her determine the course of action for each school.

Despite a No Child Left Behind provision that requires school systems to involve parents and teachers in the development of the plans, Rhee and her team are largely acting on their own and without sufficient community involvement, some school activists say.

In a meeting with Roosevelt Senior High School parents, Rhee "didn't hesitate to say this is her decision and she's going to make it," said Ron Hampton, PTA president of the Northwest Washington school. "I think it could have been done in a much more comprehensive way as far as parent participation is concerned."

Martin, however, said the proposals are based on community meetings Rhee had with parents from all schools.

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