Rhee Deploys 'Army of Believers'

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Rikki Hunt Taylor is filled with fire and educational jargon. When the Takoma Educational Center's new principal describes her vision for the school, she promises "a data-driven culture" and teachers committed to "differentiated instruction."

To reach out to families and stimulate enrollment in the pre-K-8 school's neighborhood near Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she plans to knock on every door this summer, introducing herself as if she was a candidate for City Council.

"It's my grass-roots campaign for Takoma," said Taylor, 35, a former Head Start administrator for the District. "I want to know whether Takoma has been an option, and why or why not."

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's quest to transform D.C. schools will likely rise or fall largely on the shoulders of the Rikki Hunt Taylors she is putting in place.

Rhee has just finished filling 45 vacancies in her principal corps, the first full cohort of school leaders

she has assembled since

her arrival in June 2007.

Each one represents a huge bet for Rhee. The link between student achievement and the quality of principals is beyond dispute. The right leader can forge dramatic changes in the level of teaching and the overall climate of a school.

The new hires reflect the evolving nature of the urban principal's task, including the traditional needs of children from low-income families or troubled neighborhoods and the new, high-stakes demands of such laws as No Child Left Behind, which require continuous improvement in test scores.

The skill set looks more like that of a high-energy chief executive who develops teachers, builds coalitions with parents and community leaders, and engages nonprofit groups and other outside players to bolster instruction.

Rhee is trying to shape a generation of principals who share the heart of her approach, which means sifting test results to identify student deficits (the "data-driven culture") and tailoring teaching to meet children's specific needs ("differentiated instruction").

And, like Rhee, they are devoted to the proposition that poor children in bad schools deserve a full and fair chance to learn.

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