Outside Help for Schools Possible
D.C. Contacts Private Groups To Aid Ailing Sites

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are seeking educational management firms or universities to possibly run some or all 27 schools whose students chronically perform poorly.

At a news conference yesterday with Fenty (D), Rhee said she has entered discussions with several nonprofit businesses and universities to work with the schools in the fall, although she only disclosed one, Mastery Charter Schools of Philadelphia. The Washington Post reported in November that she had approached Mastery, and Green Dot Public Schools of Los Angeles and St. Hope Public Schools in Sacramento, about managing some failing high schools.

It would be the first time the school system employed a private firm to run a school. Outside organizations manage schools in other cities.

In an interview, Rhee said she does not consider her proposed arrangement to be privatization because she would retain authority over what an outside partner would do. The organizations could "bring in their best practices, structures, schedules, curricula and themes," she said. "Ultimately, I have control over all the schools."

Rhee offered few details about the proposal. She said she has not determined how much a private-firm partnership would cost or how many organizations would run an entire school or programs in it. The District has hired such groups as America's Choice to provide extensive programs to improve schools, said Mary Levy, a local expert on school reform.

Rhee is under pressure from the U.S. Education Department to shake up six elementary schools, 11 middle schools and 10 high schools that have failed to meet academic targets for five consecutive years under the No Child Left Behind law. The law gives districts five options to help a failing school: convert it to a charter school; hire an education-management firm to run it; turn it over to the state or, in the District's case, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education; replace all its staff members; or devise another plan.

National education experts said that none of the five options, including hiring management firms, has been particularly successful.

The school system is looking for "external partners with proven track records of success," Rhee said at the news conference held at the school system's headquarters in Northeast Washington. "A university might come in and help us with professional development of teachers."

She said she will decide on the options by late April or early May.

"The change in all 27 schools will be very dramatic," she said. The Education Department "has said to us it has to be a significant intervention we have to implement."

Officials from Mastery and St. Hope did not return phone calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Green Dot said the group is not equipped to work with D.C. schools and has not talked with officials here since the fall.

Rhee said she is talking with local education groups and national groups.

Officials from Friendship Public Charter Schools and KIPP DC, which operate two of the fastest growing charters in the city, said they have had preliminary discussions with Rhee about working with students from academically troubled schools.

"We agreed that local charter organizations ought to be among those considered," said Donald L. Hense, founder and chairman of Friendship. "I believe there is an intention on her part on including local groups in her plans. Local groups know the children" in the District.

Susan Schaeffler, executive director of KIPP DC, said she was interested in replicating a two-year agreement the organization has with Scott Montgomery Elementary School in Northwest. KIPP DC leases space in the building for a middle school and shares some of its instructional methods with Scott Montgomery teachers.

KIPP DC is not in the business of taking over schools, she said, but is "in the business of partnering with and sharing with" the school system.

The Philadelphia school district, considered a leader in the private-management movement, has six groups running nearly 40 troubled schools. Officials have said that, despite spending more money for them, the privately run schools fare no better than the other public schools in Philadelphia.

School advocates, who have sued Rhee for failing to disclose her fiscal 2009 budget proposal, expressed dismay yesterday that she did not provide more information about the management firms.

"Why not present the organizations to the public so that you can have some buy in on it?" Cherita Whiting, a parent and Ward 4 education leader, said in an interview. "We need to see where is the money from the private groups coming from. Why are they being so hush-hush about our tax dollars?"

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