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D.C. Fires Principal After Surge Of Violence
Educator Says She Was 'Set Up' at Hart Middle School

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The principal of Hart Middle School was fired by District officials yesterday after two months of disorder and violence that included assaults on at least three teachers.

Kisha Webster was informed of her dismissal at a morning meeting with Lisa Ruda, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's chief of staff.

Dena Iverson, Rhee's spokeswoman, declined to answer questions and referred instead to a letter over Rhee's signature that was sent to Hart parents yesterday.

The letter, which did not mention the school's problems, said Webster would be replaced by a central office administrator, Billy Kearney, who had been serving as the school system's director of principal recruitment. Kearney was a key figure in the filling of more than principal 40 vacancies over the summer, about half of which were created when Rhee fired people for poor performance.

Webster, 37, a former assistant principal at MacArthur Middle School in Anne Arundel County, is the third principal to be replaced since the beginning of the school year. Galeet BenZion, principal at Shepherd Elementary, was fired last month, and the principal at Shadd Transition Academy was reassigned to other duties.

In a phone interview yesterday evening, Webster said she had been "set up" by District officials. She said she was put in charge of the Anacostia middle school without the resources made available to other struggling schools. Hart was one of nearly two dozen D.C. schools placed in federally mandated restructuring for failing to meet benchmarks for math and English test scores. Last year, just 17 percent of Hart students read at proficiency level.

Webster said publicity about the situation at Hart also played a role in her dismissal. On Sunday, The Washington Post published an article that described a school in disarray, with students fighting, roaming the halls and disrupting classes, according to parents, teachers and police. One student was arrested for possession of a shotgun.

"If I had been able to keep things quiet, I'd still be there," Webster said.

Webster had been hired as principal of Roosevelt STAY, an evening program at Roosevelt High School for people 15 or older who want to complete work on a diploma. She said she was reassigned to Hart after the principal who had been hired decided not to accept the post.

Hart's disciplinary problems did not begin this year. A review team that evaluated the school last year for Rhee noted many of the same conditions that contributed to Webster's ouster.

The school was a shambles when she took over in late July, Webster said. Summer renovations had barely begun, and the school had 21 teacher vacancies. With the summer hiring process winding down, she said, she was "forced to grab whatever was left" from a pool of teachers "excessed" by schools that had closed or experienced enrollment declines. At meetings of principals, she said, colleagues told her that she had teachers they were happy to be rid of.

Webster said principals at some other schools that were being restructured under the federal No Child Left Behind law had more latitude in hiring teachers. Brian Betts, the new principal at Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School, was able to replace more than 30 of the 37 teachers who finished the 2007-08 school year.

Webster also said academic programs and social services promised by Rhee as part of the restructuring never got off the ground. Many of the people involved are still in training, she said. Only one instructor is available for an accelerated reading program.

Webster said she tried to avoid suspensions when discipline deteriorated because they are counterproductive. "They come back worse than when they left," she said. "They come back with this swagger. It's 'I was suspended, now what?' "

Eventually, however, the suspensions mounted, and there were nearly 80 in one week in October, she said.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Hart's predicament, Webster said. She acknowledged that she probably alienated staff members by coming in with an attitude that was too hard-edged -- an attitude she said was influenced by her superior's judgment that the school was in terrible shape.

"I will tell you, when you come into a building where you are told everyone is crap, you come in hard," she said. In retrospect, she said, she should have taken time to form her own opinions.

But others also shoulder responsibility, including an administration that didn't understand, or care to acknowledge, the depth of Hart's needs.

"I would say that everyone is responsible," she said. "The community, the administrators, the teachers, the central office."

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