Rhee Says Schools Overhaul May Take Years

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that it will probably be several years before the federally mandated effort to reinvent 27 academically troubled schools shows significant results.

Rhee said she plans to select a reform option for each school by the middle of next month. But that will mark the beginning of a long process, she said, which means many high school students probably won't enjoy the full benefits of the changes.

"It's not possible to take a chronically failing school and in a few months or a year turn it around," Rhee said in an interview shortly after speaking at a late-afternoon gathering of about two dozen parents, staff members and school advocates at Bell Multicultural High School. It was the latest in a series of meetings Rhee has organized to discuss the challenges of fixing failing schools.

Rhee is required under the federal No Child Left Behind law to make fundamental changes in the 10 high schools, 11 middle schools and six elementary schools at which students have failed for five consecutive years to make adequate academic progress. She must pursue one of five options for each school: hire an outside educational firm to run it, convert it to a charter school, turn it over to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, replace the staff or try something else. Rhee will have final say on the options after consultations with parents and staffs.

She has identified six nonprofit educational firms as potential "partners" in the turnaround effort for the high schools, and each firm has a track record of working with troubled schools in other cities. The companies can make relatively rapid changes in security and other non-academic areas, but, she said, "in most cases it took three, four, five years" for student performance to show major improvement.

The organizations Rhee has mentioned are: Bedford Academy High School in New York; Friendship Public Charter Schools in the District; the Institute for Student Achievement in Lake Success, N.Y.; Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia; St. Hope Public Schools in Sacramento; and Talent Development High Schools in Baltimore. School officials said that the list is not necessarily limited to those six.

Rhee said that restructuring schools is a difficult, imprecise business that does not easily lend itself to formulas.

"How to turn around a large, failing urban high school is not something you have a recipe for," she told the group at Bell. She said that although the school district's central office will select what amounts to the bare bones of a new structure for each school, it will be up to local school and community leaders to flesh out the academic programs.

"As much as possible, it is the school leader that has to be the one making the ultimate call," she said.

Rhee also said that the consultations with parents and school staffs over restructuring options have been contentious. Without naming the school involved, she described one instance in which she answered 20 e-mails in an attempt to mediate a dispute between factions over which option to pursue.

"I think this process is going to be, quite frankly, a difficult one," she said.

Those who attended the meeting yesterday said they largely support Rhee's efforts. But they expressed concern over what the long-term restructuring effort means for children deep into their high school careers.

"That's the real question of the day," said Ron Hampton, head of the PTA at Roosevelt High School, who has a daughter in 10th grade. Roosevelt is one of the failing high schools.

Although Rhee said she has held scores of meetings with parents and employees of the targeted schools, Hampton questioned whether more than a few parents are aware of the restructuring effort and whether the central office has done enough to get the message out.

"The parents aren't involved," he said. "I don't care how many meetings you can claim."

Margot Berkey, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said the school system should send written material home to parents and possibly supply explanatory DVDs that could be played in schools.

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