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Rhee Deploys 'Army of Believers'

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"Every child in the building, I want to know what their weaknesses are," said Dwan Jordon, 35, an assistant principal in Prince George's County who turned down a promotion there to take over one of the District's weakest schools, Sousa Middle School in Southeast Washington.

"An army of believers," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former Cleveland school superintendent, describing what Rhee is attempting to build. Byrd-Bennett heads the Washington office of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit organization that puts promising young educators through a crash program and then helps them land jobs. Taylor is one of three New Leaders graduates who will head D.C. schools this fall.

Rhee's task, she said, is "getting the best candidates who understand the depth of the work and are willing to get dirty and be held accountable for student achievement."

About half of the 45 openings were created by Rhee's decision to fire principals deemed unable or unwilling to execute her program. Some arrived brimming with the same intensity and resolve as Jordon and Taylor. The new hires said Rhee made it plain that they will exit through the same door if they don't deliver.

Three years is frequently cited as a reasonable window of opportunity for a principal to overhaul a failing school: a year to establish order and assemble the right staff, a year to implement changes and another to fine-tune or take the school to the next level.

Jordon said the message from Rhee and her senior aides was not to count on three years.

"Their interest was in immediate improvement and immediate change," said Jordon, 35, a Coolidge High alumnus who is excited by "the sense of urgency in D.C. with education" and Rhee's promise to support him with extra staff and other resources.

Rhee vowed a national search for top-flight principals. Deputy chancellor Kaya Henderson said the staff turned over every rock, scouring test scores of schools in other big city systems, looking for dramatic upward spikes and seeking out the principal. They eyed local principal-of-the-year awards programs.

"Not just the winners, but everyone that got nominated," Henderson said.

The wide net didn't return much. About two-thirds of the more than 700 applicants were from the surrounding suburbs or already working for the school system, according to figures provided by the chancellor's office. It's not a surprising result. The city offers no relocation assistance to principals, according to application information on the D.C. schools Web site. And as "at will" employees, there is no guarantee that a job would last for more than a year.

So the principals class of 2008-09, which officially began work last week, looks decidedly local. Along with Taylor and Jordon, new hires include Terry Dade, a former Fairfax County teacher taking over at Tyler Elementary in Southeast, and Maurice Kennard, an assistant principal at Walker-Jones Elementary in Northwest hired to head the new Francis-Stevens Educational Center in Foggy Bottom, which will offer pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

They enter a school system churning with change on an unprecedented scale. Some school advocates say Rhee took far too long to complete her hiring, which diminished the pool of quality candidates and placed those who got the jobs in a difficult position. With less than two months before classes begin, they said, there is simply not enough time to prepare for the turbulence.

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