Better or Worse, It's Rhee's School System Now

In 2007, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty appointed Michelle A. Rhee as the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Critics have questioned Rhee's qualifications and her aggressive revamp of the troubled school system.
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

After a tumultuous year of unprecedented change, the fingerprints of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will be found all over Washington's 120 public schools as students return today.

The schools will reflect her undaunted approach to reorganization, her sense of urgency and her desire to address students' emotional as well as educational needs.

The direction of the nearly 50,000-student system could be determined less by the problems she inherited after decades of dysfunction than by decisions she made in her first year: closing 23 underenrolled schools; finalizing overhauls at 26 academically ailing schools; and firing 150 people she considered poor performers.

Schools chiefs typically spend their first year engendering goodwill to draw on later when they begin making unpopular decisions. Not Rhee. She bypassed the honeymoon period and immediately took on the most divisive issues a schools chief could face.

Those issues have made Rhee perhaps the most polarizing figure in District government. The principals union is accusing Rhee, a Korean American, of racism, sexism and ageism for firing nearly 50 principals and assistant principals, most of them black women over 40. She is at odds with the teachers union over a plan that would offer members huge raises in return for relinquishing seniority rights. And during her 14 months in office, she has outraged D.C. Council members and parents with what they perceive as her transgressions.

Whether she succeeds will depend on what happens in the classroom, and she is moving aggressively. This year, she is widely expanding intervention programs for students who need help -- including the use of math and literacy coaches -- and offerings in science, technology, art, music, gifted education and Advanced Placement.

The new programs, financed in part by the closures and a hundred firings at the central office, "are intended to look at students more holistically: What are the socio sort of behavioral needs that students have and how can we provide additional resources for them?" Rhee said last week in an interview.

Wilkinson Elementary in Southeast Washington illustrates how Rhee's vision is playing out in schools around the city.

Built with an "open-space" layout, Wilkinson now has walls that create separate classrooms to make it easier for students to focus on lessons. The school added art classes and a second computer lab, doubling the number of terminals to 60.

Wilkinson used to have a part-time librarian; it's getting a full-time librarian. The school had one social worker, an "itinerant" speech pathologist (shared with other schools) and no psychologist. This year, it has two social workers, a speech pathologist and two psychologists and shares an itinerant speech pathologist and an itinerant psychologist. Literacy and math coaches and an intervention specialist have been hired to help lagging students.

"With all the resources, we think we're going to do really well," said Principal Margaret Stephens-Aliendre, standing outside the building last week.

Rhee's goal is not only to make D.C. public schools "a world-class system" but also to reverse the loss of thousands of students who departed for city-financed but independently managed charter schools. She said she intends to recruit higher-caliber teachers: mission-minded workers who can help impoverished children achieve at the highest levels -- as she says she did when she taught second-graders at a troubled school in Baltimore in the early 1990s.

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