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.

Still, parents and teachers at several of the schools -- including Roosevelt, Coolidge Senior High in Northwest, Woodson and Eastern senior highs in Northeast -- said they have decided to devise their own plans, which they said they hope Rhee will approve.

Terry Goings, Coolidge's PTA president, said he is leading an effort to hire as consultants the principal and assistant principal of Bedford Academy High School in New York to oversee improvements at Coolidge. Bedford Academy is a public school that specializes in turning low-income failing students into high achievers, its assistant principal Niaka Gaston said.

"We need a new start, a new mission and new curriculum," Goings said. Bedford Academy offers "a good program," he added. "I don't see [Rhee] turning it down."

Although specific plans and costs have not been determined, some changes are very likely regardless of the No Child Left Behind option chosen, Martin said. The system plans to beef up staff in all 27 schools and provide an array of teaching experts, including literacy and math specialists. The school day would be extended by an hour for reading and math, and Saturday and summer programs would be expanded.

Elementary schools could get an intervention program such as Direct Instruction, which provides scripted lessons to teachers. The program has been used in numerous urban districts, including Houston, Atlanta and Baltimore. Although it helped students with extremely low reading skills, the program has been less successful in schools where teachers resisted the scripted lessons, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said he heard complaints from former D.C. teachers working with a similar program in other districts.

"They feel it moves the students too fast. It's guided by a script rather than your ability to assess whether the student is ready to move," he said. "Teacher input and teacher involvement would be critical to make sure any strategies put into place would be something they would buy into and would work."

Overage students -- including more than 200 15-year-olds in seventh grade -- would participate in Twilight, an intensive program of literacy and math instruction, Martin said. These students often are extremely disruptive, bully their much smaller peers and drop out, she said.

"They go to a whole different class with a whole different schedule," she explained. "It helps these children build skills so they will be successful in high school."

Darlene Williams, president of the PTA at Sousa Middle School in Southeast, said she supported Rhee's proposed focus on overage students but was not impressed with the other ideas. "What she's doing has already been done," Williams said. New school system leaders always "come from out of town implementing stuff that's already been implemented and not doing anything for the kids."

In high schools, Rhee is proposing to create three self-contained career-themed programs in each building. Each would have its own principal and staff. The themes include technology, science and early college for students who want to take simultaneous courses at the University of the District of Columbia.

Such "schools-within-a-school" have become fixtures in systems including those in New York, Chicago, Baltimore and Charlotte, said Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools. The smaller classes and personal attention paid to students have in general reduced truancy and boosted graduation rates, he said, but academic achievement has made little improvement.

In the late 1990s, the D.C. school system used grants from the Education Department to establish career academies at several high schools. The academies never received the level of funding to follow the schools-within-a-school model by becoming self-contained with separate staffs, officials said.

Hampton, Roosevelt's PTA president, called the proposal "a good idea." He wants to expand Roosevelt's culinary arts, business, media and barbering/cosmetology academies. "Roosevelt is ready for that if it's going to be 100 percent funded."

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