Rhee's Need to Hurry Runs Into Parents' Fear of Change

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The colored letters on the classroom bulletin board at Stevens Elementary spelled out "Welcome Chancellor Rhee." On this humid evening late last month, however, she was beginning to wear it out.

Stevens, which opened in Foggy Bottom in 1868 to educate freed slaves, is one of 23 underenrolled D.C. schools Rhee intends to close, all but three by this summer. Its 236 students have been offered spots for the fall about a half-mile away at Francis Junior High, which will expand to pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

For the 40 or so parents who turned out, there was a thicket of unanswered questions: about safety, about which Stevens teachers would move to Francis, about a decision that smelled to some like a grab for the prime K Street NW real estate where Stevens sits, rather than a move that will benefit their children.

"Wouldn't it be more successful if we waited a year for parents, teachers and administrators to really plan this through?" asked Nicola Turner, an accountant with 5-year-old twins. "What's the rush?"

Rush is Michelle A. Rhee's natural state as she attempts to make good on a promise by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to transform the District's public schools. The next four months, leading up to the start of the 2008-09 academic year, will be a critical, perhaps defining, period for the chancellor. One of her top objectives is to reduce the amount of space occupied by a school system that has lost half of its students since 1960.

But her key selling point to parents upset about the school closures -- that the savings will mean more for their children in the form of music and art teachers, math and literacy coaches, psychologists -- may be at risk. She says that last week's proposal by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to divert $18 million into school modernization efforts will make the academic upgrades more difficult to achieve. She has expressed confidence that money will be restored.

It's more of a sprint than an agenda Rhee has promised to complete before summer's end. In addition to closing and consolidating schools, she is supposed to launch plans to overhaul 27 others that have failed to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That can mean anything from replacing principals and entire faculties to bringing in nonprofit organizations as operators. Rhee said she will announce all 27 decisions this month.

She has been highly visible over the past two weeks, meeting with parents and staff members in question-and-answer sessions. Her message to both constituencies is the same: Not everyone will be happy with what's coming, but come it must.

Standing alone at the front of the classroom at Stevens without papers or aides, she listened but made it clear that she believed the time for talk was over.

"The bottom line is we are running too many schools," she said. "The dollars we spend are not being felt by the children because they are spread out over too many buildings."

The decision to close Stevens illustrates how Rhee's operating style both inspires and alienates. To those who say closure is the only responsible decision, she is an agent for historic change in a dysfunctional school district. Those fighting to save Stevens see a remorseless, by-the-numbers bureaucrat.

Rhee contends that the school, which has lost nearly a third of its enrollment since 2002 and which is housed in a decaying, century-old building, cannot be sustained in a district with so many unmet needs. Closing it will save the city $500,000 a year in utilities and other fixed costs, school officials estimate.

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