By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee publicly defended for the first time yesterday her decision to dismiss the principal of the Woodley Park bilingual school that her two children attend, asserting that a change in leadership was necessary to raise the level of its instructional programs.
Rhee, addressing a meeting of about 250 parents at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, also deflected allegations that her firing of Principal Marta Guzman stemmed from back-channel lobbying by a small group unhappy with Guzman's performance. A parent characterized the move as "conspiratorial" in nature.
Rhee would not discuss reasons for terminating Guzman. "I don't make personnel decisions by vote, by committee," said Rhee, whose two daughters, a kindergartner and a third-grader, are in the school's dual-immersion program, where native English- and Spanish-speaking children learn side by side.
The meeting began with a statement from parents acknowledging that although opinions on Guzman's performance "run the gamut," the process leading to her departure caught many by surprise.
"The aftermath has been very painful for this community," said Wendy Jacobson, a parent leader at the school.
Guzman, one of 24 principals Rhee dismissed this month, said in an interview May 8 that Rhee said she would recuse herself from any final decision about Guzman's tenure. But it appeared yesterday that Rhee was heavily involved in the firing.
Rhee said that as a parent "in the school three days a week," and with information from her own staff, she had a broad base of opinion to draw on. She said a major concern she had, for example, was that while the "English dominant" students, such as her daughters, were learning Spanish, they were "not truly bilingual in the way we would want." For that to happen, bilingualism needed to be more deeply embedded into all moments of the school day.
"The bottom line here is that in order to take the school to the next level . . . we need new leadership," Rhee said.
The parents attending the meeting appeared more concerned about the future of the dual-immersion program. Some parents worried that Guzman's departure was a prelude to the program's elimination. Rhee assured parents that she was "completely and utterly committed to the bilingual model," a pledge that drew applause.
Rhee added that a national search was underway for a new principal and that she was confident a successor could be in place by June 30, the effective date of Guzman's departure. The school serves 525 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
Interviews with parents after the one-hour meeting suggested that Rhee had not quelled all concerns. Some parents continued to be bothered by the apparent abruptness of Guzman's dismissal.
"We still have many issues to be resolved," said Luis Corrales, whose son is a fourth-grader. "There is a still a need to better understand."
Marlene Fuentes, whose 7- and 9-year-old children are at the school, said, "She didn't give a clear explanation for why [Guzman] didn't return as principal."
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she thought Rhee had acquitted herself well. "My sense is that people were quite satisfied," Cheh said. "They wanted assurance that the school would be maintained at the level that it has been."