Leaders Chart Progress, Academic Goals

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and education officials marked the first anniversary of his takeover of the city's beleaguered public schools yesterday by listing a series of improvements, mainly in business functions and school facilities, and outlined their goal of improving student achievement in the second year.

School system officials acknowledge that the efforts, while serving as a foundation for better instruction, probably will show little immediate effect on performance, as rated on test scores due later this summer.

A five-page, mostly single-spaced handout detailed 46 initiatives. They include a new textbook distribution system, refurbished high school athletic fields, spruced-up buildings, more art and music teachers and digitized personnel files that eliminated 4.6 million documents in disarray.

Fenty (D) attributed the quick pace to his new authority to appoint "the best and brightest" to run the system, including a new chancellor and the executive director of a new agency that handles school construction and maintenance.

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said the focus in year two will be on boosting student achievement levels.

Last year, fourth- and eighth-graders scored in the 18th percentile in math on a national achievement test. And on last year's D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, only 42 of 141 schools made academic targets.

"I have lofty goals," Rhee said at a news conference held outside Langdon Elementary School in Northeast Washington. She added that she wants to make the school system the best in the nation; end the exodus of students to charter schools by making D.C. schools the system of choice; and close the 70 percentage point achievement gap between wealthy white students and poor black students in the District.

"We know what we need to focus on in the next year is to make sure the quality of instruction in every classroom is incredibly strong," she said.

School advocates, however, questioned the tactics of Fenty and Rhee, saying they have failed to devise a long-term plan for improving schools and have excluded parents from the decision-making process.

"There's no apparent plan for what is to come, and there's been no public input," said Iris Toyer, chairman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.

Toyer said she supports the administration's plan to provide more art, music and physical education teachers but is dismayed that schools may have to give up other staff. The new teachers are "a wonderful boon to our schools, but they shouldn't be at the expense of our science teachers and computer teachers," she said.

This week, when temperatures soared into the 90s, students and teachers at several schools, including West Elementary in Northwest and Woodson High in Northeast, complained about lack of working air-conditioners. Fenty said that the effort last summer by the newly created Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization to upgrade heating and cooling systems, "while not 100 percent perfect yet, is significantly improved."

Rhee said she is addressing student achievement through the current contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers' Union. She said she wants to improve instruction by ensuring the District "has the most highly compensated and competent" teachers in the country.

In the fall, she said, the schools will have more technology and programs for gifted and talented students. Teachers will be trained to analyze test data to track student progress more accurately. And more reading and math coaches will be provided to help low-achieving students.

"I have a tremendous amount of faith and confidence that we will turn the system around and provide every single child an excellent education," Rhee said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company