Rhee Offers Plan To Improve D.C.'s Troubled Schools

By V. Dion Haynes and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 16, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee detailed plans yesterday for overhauling 26 academically troubled schools, saying she will replace principals and teachers, hire private education-management firms and install instructional programs to boost student achievement.

The long-awaited plan, which is 400 pages, is required by the U.S. Department of Education to improve schools that have failed for five straight years to meet academic targets required by the No Child Left Behind law.

Under the act, Rhee had five options: Convert the schools into charter schools; replace principals and/or teachers; hire private education firms to run schools; turn schools over to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education; or devise an alternative plan. She selected more than one option for some schools.

Seventeen of the 26 schools are slated to get new principals or teachers, the option that gives Rhee the greatest amount of control. Some parents and education activists said they were disappointed that she relied so heavily on "reconstitution," the official term for replacing staff members. They say it has been tried repeatedly in the school system without success. At least eight of the 17 schools have been reconstituted more than once and have experienced high staff turnover.

"It is unconscionable to continue to do this to the children of the District of Columbia," said Iris Toyer, chairwoman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.

Toyer's son attended Stanton Elementary in Southeast Washington, one of the schools whose staff will change, when a previous superintendent replaced the principal and staff a few years ago. She said the changes created chaos and did not improve the school.

"Children need stability," she said. "They need people who will be in it for the long haul."

Rhee's spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, disagreed, saying that replacing staff is a good option. "If you look at school districts with proven turnaround success, a great majority have used reconstitution as a means to create learning environments that boost student achievement," she said. "The administration strongly believes Option 2 [changing staff] will ignite student achievement in those schools."

Five schools will be run by an outside management firm, and seven will work with an alternative plan. Rhee opted against converting the schools into charters or turning them over to the state education office, saying she wanted to maintain control of them.

"For more than five years, these schools have been failing our students day in and day out," Rhee said yesterday at a news conference at Coolidge High in Northwest, one of the schools where teachers will be replaced. "We are fully confident the plan we developed will result in higher achievement levels for all the students educated in" the schools, she said, adding that the selections were based on feedback from parents and teachers.

Rhee's plan is final. It does not require approval by other local or federal officials.

[A box accompanying this article lists the schools affected and which options will be applied to them.]

Rhee said she will decide soon which education firms will be paired with the five schools that get nonprofit operators.

Rhee said the schools' leaders met with the nonprofit firms and have questions that she wants answered before making a final decision. The nonprofit organizations are Bedford Academy High School in New York; Friendship Public Charter School 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.

Terry Goings, president of the Coolidge PTA, said he hopes Rhee selects Bedford Academy to help manage the school. "We're looking to reorganize the school," he said. "When you walk into the school, we want you to see an environment of learning."

Rhee said the alternative plans include clustering the low-performing schools with high-performing ones; introducing behavior-management programs and mental health services for students; and providing individualized instruction for general and special education students, who will be integrated in the same classrooms.

Ronald H. Brown Middle School in Northeast will use a "full-service" model that calls for dividing the school into "small learning communities" staffed by teachers who would remain with them during their entire time there. The school also would offer staff who could help with family and mental health issues and discipline problems.

There had been 27 schools on the list, but one, Green Elementary in Southeast, was taken off because the school's low enrollment subjects it to closure next month.

Among the schools that will get new principals, Woodson High in Northeast, scheduled to be demolished this summer, will be rebuilt and reopened as a science, engineering, technology and math school. In the meantime, the school will be split into two campuses -- ninth-graders at Brown Middle and 10th- to 12th-graders at the closed Fletcher-Johnson school.

Eastern High in Northeast will be phased out over three years, losing one grade a year. The new Eastern will reopen under an undetermined new program. In the meantime, the school will get a new principal.

"We're kind of disappointed. It leaves a lot of uncertainty," said Mark Roy, a community member on Eastern's school restructuring team, which advises the principal. "The school is being phased out, and we've yet to be told what it's going to turn into."

Stanton Elementary is one of the schools that will receive new instructional staff. It will use a "School-Wide Application Model," which will group general and special education students in the same classrooms. All students will be given individualized education plans that will help teachers instruct them according to their learning styles and abilities.

"We keep cycling through people without looking at [what the administration can do] to support people to do good work," said Cathy Reilly, director of Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators. "We don't have a supportive central administration."

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