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.
Some parents say Rhee may have a point. Not acceptable, they say, are the confusion and lack of basic information surrounding the move, leaving them with the sense that her decision was final before discussions with the community began.
"How can you close a building you've never even been in?" asked Bernard Hackett, whose 5-year-old son attends Stevens. Rhee has toured numerous schools but, until the evening meeting last month, had never entered Stevens.
Rhee said she has been flexible about the school closings and has reversed some decisions after hearing community reaction. She removed Bruce-Monroe Elementary, a school in Northwest, from the list, she said, because it met academic benchmarks under No Child Left Behind.
She said the argument for preserving Stevens, where just 27 percent of the students tested at proficient or better on the DC-CAS math exam last year, is based more on sentiment than the students' best interests.
"A lot of times, people feel very comfortable with their schools," she said. "But why would I do the same thing year in and year out if it is not producing the results that those kids need and deserve?"
Other issues have left Stevens parents anxious. They say they have had no input into the planned $5 million redesign of the Francis building to accommodate preschool and elementary students, including how the retrofitting will keep small children safe from harassment or worse by middle-schoolers. Those seeking other public schools for their children say the chancellor's office has been elusive and unresponsive.
There also is frustration because, with less than six weeks left in the school year, parents do not know which Stevens teachers and staff members will move to Francis, a key component in their decision-making about the fall.
"This is like the war in Iraq. Let's invade, but we have no plan for the occupation," said Florence Harmon, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in West End-Foggy Bottom.
Rhee said that she is "strongly encouraging" Stevens faculty to make the move but that she cannot order it. The school system's contract with the Washington Teachers' Union allows teachers at closing schools to pursue other opportunities.
It all leads to what Stevens supporters fear will be the dissolution of a school with roots deep in the city's history, a school whose halls were walked by singer Roberta Flack, community activist and talk show host Petey Greene, Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King and former president Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy.
Most of the school's families live outside the attendance area and value the school because parents work downtown and rely on what they say are Stevens's first-rate preschool and after-school programs.
Hackett, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, is one of several parents who think another agenda is in play: that the school, surrounded by office towers at 21st and K streets NW, is coveted by developers.
Sean Madigan, a spokesman for Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said that no decisions had been made about the Stevens property and that "all options are on the table." He said there would be meetings with the community to discuss possibilities for the property's reuse.
"These decisions [to close schools] were not made about real estate and development," Rhee said flatly to Hackett at the meeting. "You can choose to believe me or not to believe me."