Overhauling D.C. School Overcome by Violence

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008

D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has dispatched a team of administrators and extra security to an Anacostia middle school where three teachers have been assaulted, a 14-year-old was charged with carrying a shotgun and students have run the hallways discharging fire extinguishers.

The intervention began Monday at Hart Middle School, where a dismal academic record -- 17 percent of its students read at proficiency level last year -- triggered a mandatory overhaul under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Interviews with teachers, parents, students and police paint a picture of a troubled school that, far from hitting bottom with its placement on "restructuring" status, has fallen into an even deeper hole. It is overenrolled and understaffed and lacks the extra academic support promised by Rhee, teachers said.

A young new principal, installed this fall to raise student achievement, has struggled to bond with teachers and establish basic order, parents and staff said.

"Kids sitting on desks, coming into classrooms and knocking over books, cussing, running through the halls," said Timothy Favors, who has visited Hart on multiple occasions because his son, a sixth-grader, is getting poor grades after doing well at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. "This isn't a school I would recommend for anyone. You could have a perfectly normal child, and he would get flipped here like a pancake."

The school's difficulties began on Day One, staff members said, when delays in finishing summer renovations left the building in disarray, overrun with contractors still at work. Hart's enrollment exceeded projections, with 619 students as of Oct. 6, instead of the 540 anticipated by the District.

As a result, the school was plagued by teacher shortages, with as many as 12 vacancies at one point, said William Lockridge, a member of the State Board of Education who represents schools in wards 7 and 8. Class sizes swelled, and inexperienced substitutes struggled to keep order.

Rhee's spokeswoman, Dena Iverson, said last week that the District "has made assignments to all vacancies" at Hart. But Elizabeth Davis, a computer technology teacher, said that there are still substitutes at the school and that other teachers are working outside their certified areas of expertise, leading English and math classes.

School administrators declined to answer questions last week about the situation at Hart. Principal Kisha Webster and Instructional Superintendent William Wilhoyte, who leads the administrative team, did not respond to interview requests. Rhee referred questions to Iverson.

"DCPS has deployed additional security officers to assist at Hart Middle School, additionally the central office is working closely with the staff and will continue to provide the support necessary to ensure a safe and positive learning environment," Iverson said in a statement.

Lockridge said teachers seemed cowed by unruly students during his visits to Hart. "I don't want to say afraid, but they seemed reluctant to deal with students head-on," he said. "The teachers feel that they are just overwhelmed."

Hart is not the only school with safety and discipline issues this fall. D.C. police arrested 19 girls at Dunbar High School on Thursday morning, the culmination of a series of fights in recent weeks. Three were charged with simple assault and 16 with disorderly affray, Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes said. She said there have also been problems with "crews of girls" fighting at Anacostia High School.

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