Reports on Schools Cite Student Discontent

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The question to a focus group of Dunbar High students was: What did they like best about going to school there?

"Freedom," said one who takes Advanced Placement classes at the school in Northwest Washington. "We can do whatever we want at this school. That's the only good thing about this place."

At Green Elementary School in Southeast, one child urged: "Give us harder work, not the busywork that we already know."

"They let us struggle," a student at Lincoln Middle School in Northwest said of the teachers. "They let you know you are failing, but then let you go on struggling and then send you to summer school."

These are voices from some of the city's 27 worst-performing schools, as reported by evaluation teams deployed over the winter by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. For five years, the schools -- six elementary, 11 middle and 10 high -- have failed to hit reading and math test benchmarks established by the federal No Child Left Behind law. The measure required Rhee to make major changes to the schools' leadership and academic programs.

On Thursday, she announced overhaul plans for 26 schools (the 27th, Green, will be closed). They include replacing principals and teachers, introducing new instructional programs and hiring private education management firms to take over school operations.

Rhee based her decisions in part on "quality school review" reports she commissioned. Teams of nine to 11 teachers, parents, students and educators from outside the District made one- and two-day visits to the struggling schools. They observed classes, reviewed lesson plans and held hour-long focus groups with teachers and students to try to assess the obstacles each school faced.

Given the relative brevity of the visits, the evaluations are more snapshots than definitive portraits. But the 200-plus pages of reports, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, offer vivid glimpses behind the doors of chronically failing schools. In many cases, they depict rudderless and cheerless institutions where students wander the halls with impunity during class and staff members have all but given up trying to maintain order.

At Lincoln Middle School, for example, where a quarter of the 450 children are English-language learners, "review team members were the only adults in the hallways asking students to go to class" at certain times. Lincoln Principal Lydia Blazquez did not return a phone message.

In the cafeteria of Dunbar High, "no students went to class when the bell rang," the team report said, noting that only when administrators came in did students leave.

Rhee, who has been on the job for less than a year, said she wanted some ground-level sense of what went on in these schools before she made decisions on restructuring.

"I didn't want to just look at test scores and achievement levels," she said. "We wanted to differentiate."

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