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.

But Groomes, who oversees the police department's School Security Bureau, said that overall, she was "kind of pleased" with school safety this year. She said police were braced for major trouble, expecting that the recent round of school closings and consolidations would aggravate neighborhood and gang rivalries.

Groomes acknowledged, however, that Hart "seems to have more of a pattern" of disruption. Some of it may be attributable, she said, to its consolidation with Patricia R. Harris Educational Center, another school in Southeast that was closed by Rhee in June for low enrollment. Harris was "a challenging school," Groomes said, and Hart might have inherited some of its problem students.

Since the beginning of the school year in late August, two teachers have been assaulted by students, Groomes said. No weapons were used, she said, and the incidents involved hitting or pushing.

Another teacher at Hart was choked by an angry parent. On Sept. 14, Donnell Woodard was arrested and charged with assault. He is accused of attempting to strangle a teacher during an argument about the teacher's treatment of his daughter, a seventh-grader, police said. Woodard said in an interview Friday that the teacher had pushed his daughter on multiple occasions. Woodard also said that his daughter was attacked in a restroom stall by two girls and that she came home with a knot on her head from students throwing marbles in class.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "They don't have enough security." While Woodard was speaking, he and a Washington Post reporter observed a security guard stand by and watch as a boy with a bandage on his left ear was pummeled on the head by a larger girl swinging her book bag.

Other incidents heightened safety concerns. On Oct. 1, police chasing a 14-year-old student after breaking up a fight outside school found a shotgun in a pack he left behind. Investigators learned that two days earlier, the boy had allegedly confronted another student with a handgun during a dispute. He was charged with possession of a shotgun and assault with a deadly weapon. On Oct. 28, firefighters were called to the school after students ran through the halls discharging fire extinguishers. Parents and teachers said part of the school was evacuated for at least two hours while firefighters ventilated the area.

Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker said he was receiving an unprecedented level of complaints from teachers about deteriorating student discipline. He attributed the problem to poor school leadership.

"We're getting a lot of new principals who, quite frankly, are not very skillful at handling student discipline," Parker said.

Vernon Williams, a union leader and Advanced Placement English teacher at Spingarn High School in Northeast, said he saw a generation of young, talented but inexperienced teachers burning out because of a lack of administrative support in handling unruly students. "I'm not sure how long these newer teachers are going to last," he said.

Hart is one of 26 District schools placed on restructuring status this spring under the No Child Left Behind act after repeatedly failing to make sufficient annual progress on standardized test scores. Each failing school was required to begin the year with an overhaul plan.

Hart's plan called for a new principal and administrative staff, academic interventions depending on the students' needs and contracting with a private educational organization to manage the school.

Hart is also one of several schools selected for a pilot program offering intensive social services to students and families. Davis said last week that all of the support promised for the school has not been delivered.

"We don't have all the resources we were guaranteed under the restructuring formula," she said.

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