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."
Some focus group participants said the reports didn't reflect real insight into the problems.
"They missed certain aspects. People saw the things they wanted to see, more than what was actually there," said Mark Roy, a community member active at Eastern High School who was in a focus group. Roy was part of a movement calling for Rhee to fire the teachers and staff. Instead, she has dismissed Eastern Principal Monica Taylor and plans to phase out the Northeast Washington school grade-by-grade over the next three years, then reopen it under a program yet to be determined. Roy and other community members are appealing the decision.
The larger picture is far from uniformly bleak. Several of the schools facing overhaul possess pockets of genuine promise and have made encouraging starts toward reform, even if recent test scores don't yet reflect progress, evaluators said.
One team praised teachers and staff at Cardozo High in Northwest for "a remarkable job in transforming the culture and climate of the school," with its specialized academies and other programs. Evaluators had similarly strong reviews for the ninth- and 10th-grade academies at Ballou High in Southeast and Roosevelt High in Northwest. Teachers at Miner Elementary and Ronald H. Brown Middle schools, both in Northeast, were commended for their unusually good rapport with students.
But the theme resonating most powerfully in the reports is student frustration with the lack of academic rigor. Although there are always a few inspiring instructors, students -- none of whom were named -- said too many teachers approached their jobs with indifference and low expectations.
"Teachers don't teach us a thing throughout the entire period," said one Lincoln student. "When visitors come, they start working."
At Anacostia High in Southeast, evaluators described a history class exercise where students were prompted to respond to the question, "Where is your favorite place to shop?"
None of the randomly selected students at Dunbar High responded positively when asked whether the school was preparing them for college. Pressed further, they said they didn't even feel ready for the workforce beyond high school.
"Students want to be valued and respected and challenged," said Tracy Y. Martin, Rhee's chief of schools, who oversaw many of the team visits.
Teachers, for their part, reported feeling overwhelmed and demoralized by behavior problems.
At Coolidge High in Northwest, a review team found classroom doors deadbolted to prevent students from coming in late. Teachers at Dunbar, who struggle with a 1970s-era "open classroom" design that features partitions instead of walls, reported that even when security and administrators are summoned, students who don't belong in the classroom "are not required to leave."
In at least one instance, a teacher at Eliot Junior High in Northeast devised what the school report called "essentially a dunce desk," with a sign that read, "Students who lack self-control are students who want to be punished." Evaluators wrote, "This teacher was observed using strategies and techniques that are inconsistent with supporting student achievement." Principal Andre Roach did not return phone messages late last week.
The degree of parental involvement at the schools varied. Parents at Eastern High "are clearly involved and want the best for their students," the evaluators wrote. But at Johnson Middle, where only 6 percent of the students are proficient in math and English language arts: "Plainly, there wasn't any parental involvement evident in the school," they wrote.
The reports of disorder and low staff morale might explain why Rhee chose to fire 13 of the principals who headed schools facing overhaul. Rhee said she will not comment on specific dismissals. But Lincoln's Blazquez, Eliot's Roach and Dunbar Principal Harriett Kargbo, for example, were told that their contracts would not be renewed.
Another principal dismissed was Anacostia High's Lynne Gober, who dismayed evaluators with her answer when she was asked what had been done to address behavior issues at the school, where 7.6 percent of the 953 students achieved proficiency on reading tests last year.
"Shoot 'em," Gober said. Although the report noted that the response "may have been facetious," the visiting team said the school needs to do more "to ensure a culture and climate that is conducive to teaching and learning."
Gober, the school's third principal in the past three years, said Friday that the comment was absolutely in jest. "That's me," she said. "I have to find humor in some things. Was it tactful? I guess not."
Staff writer V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.