Better or Worse, It's Rhee's School System Now
Her First Year Has Left a Big Impact

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.

"What we know is that the quality of teachers that we have in the system will make or break us," Rhee said recently at an event in Chicago. "We can have pretty, shiny buildings, great curriculum and programs, but unless we have unbelievable educators in the system, it's all going to be for naught."

She would use compensation packages exceeding $100,000 a year in salary and bonuses to attract a new crop of teachers. She is seeking a contract with the Washington Teachers' Union that would give its members the option of making higher salaries in exchange for relinquishing tenure and seniority protections.

The union has expressed strong objections to the proposal. If it fails, Rhee said last week, she would use teacher evaluations and a new certification process to get rid of teachers who don't meet her expectations.

First she has to get through opening day.

Rhee is attempting to avert start-of-the-year problems that have weakened the credibility of previous schools chiefs. She said 99.9 percent of textbooks are in place. High school schedules are done, and all principal and assistant principal vacancies are filled. And despite renovation delays, she said she expects all schools to be ready today.

Still, not everyone is optimistic, particularly about some of the 28 schools undergoing consolidations related to campus closures.

Among the skeptics is Maria P. Jones, who has a daughter entering kindergarten at Burroughs Elementary in Northeast. Burroughs is expanding to take students from Slowe Elementary, which is closing, and to extend enrollment through eighth grade.

Jones said Rhee's staff had ignored parents' requests for a new gym and additional sports and extracurricular activities to accommodate middle-schoolers. She also said parents weren't allowed to play a role in creating the culture of the new school.

"It's like ushering in a scary era where we don't have a say in what's going on," said Jones, who chaired the Burroughs restructuring team, a panel that advises the principal. "It just feels like the people are losing their voice . . . that we're losing a grip on democracy."

Unilateral Power

Rhee was able to move so quickly because of the unilateral power granted her by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who has staked his political future on fixing the schools, which he won control over in June 2007. Fenty (D) has given her political cover by warning agency heads that they risk losing their jobs if they tell her no.

Under the new governance system, Rhee reports only to Fenty, not a school board.

Critics argue that the structure has resulted in a scaling back of checks and balances, due process for employees and opportunities for the public to have a meaningful say.

Some critics say she operates the $1 billion system like the private nonprofit she founded before taking the chancellor job -- with little accountability to the public. They say Rhee often fails to respond to inquiries from parents, teachers, education activists, council members and even other city agencies seeking basic information about her plans.

She has fiercely resisted efforts to scrutinize her work. In March, as part of the 100 firings in the central office "to create a culture of accountability," Rhee dismissed independent auditor John Cashman, whose job was to uncover waste and corruption. She also persuaded D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi to reassign schools CFO Pamela D. Graham when Graham attempted to stop Rhee from busting the budget with new hires, sources said.

Rhee, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

As she has consolidated power, she has weakened the authority of principals and instructional superintendents, administrators who oversee clusters of schools, and diminished school-based decision-making.

Asked recently by a PBS reporter whether she considers herself a benevolent dictator, she said: "If by dictator, you mean somebody who, at the end of the day, is fully comfortable being held accountable for, you know, the results and is going to be incredibly decisive about the direction that we're heading in, then, yes."

But in a move that could ratchet up a tug of war between two powerful figures, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) is seeking to expand his watchdog role over Rhee. The council can interrogate Rhee during hearings but has little influence over her unless she makes a special request for money or legislation.

Gray is pushing Rhee to engage the community in a discussion of her five-year plan at a hearing this fall. He wants her to set annual benchmarks so the public can gauge whether she is succeeding. The moves are aimed at stopping her from introducing one initiative at a time while keeping her long-range plans hidden.

"It serves everyone well if we know where she is going and if [the public] can feel a part of it," Gray said. "Giving people an opportunity to be involved in the process is healthy. Yes, on the front end, it's time-consuming and can be contentious. But it will be contentious on the back end if you don't."

Supporters of Rhee's tactics say desperate times call for drastic measures. "I think she's doing a terrific job," said former council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who chaired the council's education committee from 1996 to 2005 and is Rhee's confidant. "Many solid, accomplished people have taken on the task of making D.C. public schools work for children and have largely failed. I came to believe that change would not happen without radical, aggressive action."

Staying Power

One tactic Rhee used in her most heated battles her first year was to outlast the opposition.

She attended 370 community meetings, appearing before every group that requested her presence. She endured night after night of being yelled at by parents about school closings. Although she changed her mind in a few instances, she has said her intention was less to build consensus than to tell people what she was going to do.

"Those who scream the loudest were used to winning," said a source familiar with Rhee's behind-the-scenes operation. The source was not authorized to speak for Rhee and therefore requested anonymity. Rhee's position was, "We aren't going to let a vocal minority make a decision for us," the source said.

She sat through day-long council hearings to make her case for gaining firing authority over the central office. "She wouldn't get up and go to the bathroom because Gray wouldn't go to the bathroom," the source said.

Rhee has also faced criticism over the firing of principals. Principals, who work on year-to-year contracts, said they were led to believe that their employment would be based on student test scores and evaluations. But Rhee used other criteria -- parent and teacher comments and reviews from her staff -- which were not shared with principals, said Francisco Millet, a former instructional superintendent serving as a liaison between Rhee and a cluster of schools. (Millet resigned in June to move back to Dallas.)

"She never sat with them and said, 'This is your evaluation. This is what I expect of you,' " Millet added. "Principals were upset by that."

The 'Cow Pen'

Rhee, 38, works very long hours, juggling the job with her duties as a divorced mother of two young daughters. It's not unusual for her to work until 3 a.m., answering e-mail. She responded to 95,000 messages in her first year.

Her staff has to remind her to stop and eat. Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently bought her a treadmill so she can get exercise.

Rhee is in campaign mode constantly, giving what amounts to stump speeches across the nation about her challenges. She talks about low achievement, the need for schools chiefs to have the kind of power she does, and the need to oust incompetent employees. Rhee described to a national technology group gathered in downtown Washington a hapless teacher who couldn't keep her students engaged.

"She started flicking the lights," Rhee said, deadpanning while flipping her hand up and down to mimic the teacher's motion. In a slow monotone, Rhee mocked the teacher's befuddlement: " 'Everybody, be quiet. Ten, nine, eight -- I'm waaaaiting.' I could see the kids say, 'We're waiting, too -- for something to happen.' "

Her base of operations is on the ninth floor of the central office on North Capitol Street. Rhee's staff has dubbed the large office "the cow pen." The space resembles Fenty's open-office "bullpen" and reflects striking differences between her and former superintendent Clifford B. Janey.

She moved in her personal assistant, press secretary and scheduling assistant, transforming Janey's executive suite into a situation room. A wall on which Janey displayed student artwork has a flat-screen TV that blares council hearings.

Rhee has assembled a senior staff of more than 20 employees, people who, like her, are aggressive, action-oriented and work late. "She pushes hard. 'Cannot be done' is not an answer," a source said.

A bulletin board next to her desk displays a drawing by one of her daughters, both of whom attend a public school, Oyster-Adams Bilingual in Northwest. The drawing shows the girls, Rhee and her former husband, Kevin Huffman, standing on "Mt. Rhee."

"Because I'm a working mother and I can see firsthand how these policies and procedures we have play out, it gives me a different sense of urgency in my work everyday," said Rhee while riding in the back of a school-issued sport-utility vehicle, a daughter's teddy bear beside her.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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