Rhee Has Dismissed 24 Principals

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said all of the dismissals are
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said all of the dismissals are "absolutely" fair. (Lois Raimondo - The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has fired 24 principals, including 13 who headed schools deemed to be failing under the federal "No Child Left Behind Act," officials confirmed yesterday.

Principals work on year-to-year agreements. About 15 to 20 principals are let go annually, according to the Council of School Officers, the principal's union.

This year's reshuffling has drawn heightened interest because it provides another window into Rhee's still-new leadership of the school system. The personnel changes also have added urgency because of the federal mandate to make major changes in 26 schools that have failed to show adequate progress under "No Child Left Behind."

Rhee has dismissed principals at five of the 10 high schools subject to restructuring under No Child Left Behind: Lynne Gober of Anacostia; Harriet Kargbo of Dunbar; Monica Taylor of Eastern; Gwendolyn Jones of Woodson; and Jacqueline Williams of Wilson. Five of the 11 middle and junior high schools facing overhaul will also have new principals -- Hart, Lincoln, MacFarland, Garnet-Patterson and Sousa -- as will three of the five elementary schools to be retooled: Moten, Stanton and Truesdell.

Ten other principals either retired or resigned.

Nelson Burton, principal of Coolidge High School and head of the principal's union, said that because principals serve at the will of the chancellor, there is no way to formally appeal the decisions. "There isn't much recourse there," Burton said.

Word of the dismissals began to circulate last week as principals received form letters over Rhee's signature informing them that their contracts would not be renewed.

Rhee and other school officials have steadfastly refused to discuss specific reasons for the dismissals, citing privacy and personnel regulations. In broad terms, she said yesterday that all the decisions are "absolutely" fair. She has been conducting an aggressive national advertising campaign to attract high-performing principals to the District.

Most of the principals who were not renewed either did not return phone calls or could not be reached for comment.

One of the few who would discuss the matter, Willie Bennett, principal of Hart Middle School in Southeast, said that Rhee is targeting older administrators. "Many of the people who were released were in the same predicament. Many of the people were older," said Bennett, who has worked for D.C. schools for 16 years, the last 10 at Hart as assistant principal and principal. Sixteen percent of the school's 508 students demonstrated reading proficiency on tests in the 2006-07 school year, according to school district records, down from 22 percent the year before.

Lucia Vega, principal of Powell Elementary, which is not targeted for changes under No Child Left Behind, said Rhee had a right to do as she wished. Vega said she is also dismayed because she submitted her resignation but was nevertheless listed as one of the principals fired.

Vega complained that during her five-year tenure she has received little support from administrators for a school where more than half the students are English-language learners and half receive free or reduced-price lunches because of their low-income status. In a 2007 Washington Post series on D.C. public schools, she talked about how she was forced to "warehouse" an incompetent literacy coach imposed on her by the central office.

"I just feel the system set us up," Vega, 54, said. "We do have a very failed school system. We all know that they promised us support and it was rarely given." She noted that plans for next year include major staffing increases, including an assistant principal, a full-time business manager, a full-time psychologist and a "functional" literacy coach.

Some of the leadership changes sparked controversy before they were formally announced. Some parents at Oyster-Adams-Bilingual School, where Rhee's two daughters are enrolled, were upset when they learned last week that Principal Marta Guzman would not be retained. Some parents said that Guzman's dismissal was engineered by a small group of parents who dined with Rhee. Other parents say there were serious problems with Guzman's leadership, including disorganization and poor communication.

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