By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008
Oyster-Adams Principal Marta Guzman can recall the ripple of anxiety that ran through some faculty members last summer when they learned that the new D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, had chosen the bilingual school for her two daughters, a kindergartner and a third-grader.
But Guzman, an educator with more than 30 years' experience, said she wasn't concerned. The dual-immersion program, where native English and Spanish-speaking children learn side by side, has long made the Cleveland Park school among the city's most coveted, with high test scores and a national Blue Ribbon for academic achievement. Every year, parents from outside its attendance boundaries vie through a lottery for a handful of spaces to enroll their children.
"I thought it was a good thing," she said of the Rhee children's enrollment.
This week, Rhee fired her.
Guzman received a form letter from Rhee informing her that she was out of a job effective June 30, one of at least two dozen principals whose contracts for the 2008-09 school year were not renewed. Guzman said she was given no reason for her dismissal, either in the letter from Rhee or at a Monday meeting with Assistant Superintendent Francisco Millet.
Rhee said through her spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, and by e-mail that she could not comment on Guzman's situation because it was a personnel matter. Millet did not return a phone message. Guzman said that when she met with Rhee last month, the chancellor was noncommittal but did say she would "recuse herself" from any final decision about Guzman's tenure.
Guzman's departure has stunned many Oyster-Adams parents who wonder why, in a city filled with under-performing public schools, Rhee would sack a principal who has presided for the past five years over one of its few success stories. The move has also heightened ethnic and class tensions within the school's diverse community. Eduardo Barada, co-chairman of the Oyster-Adams Community Council, the school's PTA, said Guzman was toppled by a cadre of dissatisfied and largely affluent Anglo parents with the ear of a woman who was both a fellow parent and the chancellor.
"I believe there are some parents who want to control and dominate," he said. "They want to silence the Latinos there."
Claire Taylor, council co-chairwoman, said she "absolutely respects Eduardo's position" but doesn't agree with it. "From what I've seen of Michelle Rhee, she is an exceedingly fair person who wants what's in the best interests of the students," she said.
Taylor added that ethnic and class divisions are the norm at Oyster-Adams. "A leaf falls and there are issues," she said.
Taylor was one of a group of Oyster-Adams parents, both white and Latino, who dined with Rhee in November and aired complaints about Guzman. Among the issues raised with Rhee, who took notes, according to another attendee, were Guzman's alleged lack of organization, reluctance to delegate and sometimes-brusque style.
Asked to discuss the dinner, which was at the home of another parent, Taylor said she was "not going to get into intra-school politics."
Guzman, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and who marched with Cesar Chavez as a young teacher of migrant children in California, has spent most of her career in bilingual or ESL programs. She helped found Virginia's first language-immersion program at Francis Scott Key Elementary school in Arlington County and was principal of Weyanoke Elementary in the heavily immigrant Annandale area.
She received high ratings after joining Oyster in 2003. An evaluation signed by Millet in November 2005 read: "Teachers and staff in this school were doing an incredible job. . . . The principal is an effective instructional leader and has created a true community of learners, which has made a powerful impact on academic achievement." Asked for a look at her 2007 evaluation, Guzman said she had misplaced it.
She said she understands that dismissal is always a possibility for principals. She also concedes that it has been a difficult year, dominated by Oyster's merger with Adams Elementary, creating a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade dual-immersion program spread over two campuses with 525 students. She said that she lacked adequate staff to deal with the complicated expansion and that she and Millet clashed frequently.
Still, she said she thought secrecy and intrigue largely contributed to her ouster: "I basically think this has been done with gossip and innuendo."
Guzman said she wasn't aware of any specific complaints that Rhee had, either as a parent or administrator. The chancellor has kept a low profile at the school, Guzman said, sharing pickup and drop-off duties with her ex-husband, lawyer Kevin Huffman. Rhee, who lives in Brightwood, is not the only Oyster-Adams parent who is a top schools official. Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso also has a son there. He did not return a phone message to discuss Guzman.
The first sign that her job was in jeopardy, Guzman said, came last month, when Millet convened a meeting of Oyster-Adams teachers to discuss her leadership. Guzman, who was not invited to the meeting, said she learned from a teacher that Millet began the meeting by announcing that a national search was underway for her replacement.
She quickly asked for a meeting with Rhee, who told her about the dinner meeting. Rhee said parents were frustrated by Guzman's lack of organization and "not comfortable with her" on a personal level.
What particularly rankles Guzman is why it took five months for Rhee to disclose the parents' back-channel complaints. "If she wanted to work on this, she could have called me in November," Guzman said.
Several supporters of Guzman said the principal deserves something approaching due process, although principals serve at the pleasure of the chancellor on yearly contracts. "I'm not saying the criticisms are not true, but this is a woman who has spent her whole life educating children," said Pedro Aviles, an Oyster-Adams parent. "Now she's being treated by a very impersonal system in a very inhumane way."
Maureen Diner, who has a fourth-grader at the school, said Rhee's silence is not seemly for a chancellor who came into office a year ago promising reform.
"Anybody asked not to return deserves a process, at the very least a community meeting," Diner said. As for Rhee, "she talked about creating a culture of accountability. At the same time, she needs to be accountable for her own actions."