Rhee Proposes Parent Academy, Better Security

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Revamped security and discipline policies, more specialized schools, a "Parent Academy" to help District parents take charge of their children's education and the possibility of more school closures are part of the long-term vision proposed by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in a new document.

The 79-page "action plan," which Rhee will present to the D.C. Council tomorrow, pulls together a broad variety of ideas that have been only hinted at publicly, including a possible end to out-of-school suspensions and an increase in the number of "theme" schools, focusing on high technology, language immersion, or gifted and talented students.

Other goals in the draft document -- the need for new and better-paid teachers, higher test scores, closing the achievement gap between white and minority students -- are ones she has frequently articulated. Taken together, they provide the most detailed picture of Rhee's aspirations for the 120-school system, which is affected by declining enrollment and poor academic performance.

One section of the draft likely to prompt wide discussion covers school security and discipline. Several schools, including Hart Middle School and Dunbar High School, have reported significant disruptions this year because of fighting and assaults on teachers. Ballou Senior High School's Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting tonight to discuss student violence.

The proposal calls for electronic monitoring centers in secondary schools. A handful of central office staff is responsible for monitoring the 3,500 surveillance cameras in the school system. Experienced law enforcement personnel would be hired to augment security.

The document also said Rhee will consider ending out-of-school suspensions, in which students are sent home. School administrators say such measures are not an effective deterrent and too often amount to lost time, with students watching television or roaming the streets. Some students simply don't return.

Rhee proposes making suspensions "an educationally viable consequence" for misbehavior by having them served in school. The plan proposes expanding in-school suspension programs and possibly opening "suspension classrooms" in each school.

Philip Pannell, treasurer of the Ballou PTSA, called the ideas "terrific."

"You suspend a student, they still come and hang around the school and cause problems," he said.

The plan calls for expanding the number of schools with specialized programs, which are open to eligible students citywide. There are seven, including the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, School Without Walls High School and Bell Multicultural High School. None is in Southeast or Southwest Washington, making them relatively inaccessible to the District's highest-need students. Rhee also proposes to increase the number of "theme" schools, focusing on such areas as high technology, language immersion and gifted and talented students.

"Within five years, our school portfolio will look significantly different than it does today," the draft says.

Although it is not specific, the plan makes it clear that Rhee will not hesitate to close more schools. Significantly underenrolled schools are at risk, according to the document, although Rhee spokeswoman Dena Iverson said there are no closures planned "at this time."

Schools that consistently fail to meet academic targets during the next three years also face possible closure. "We will close schools if they fail to show progress despite our efforts at aggressive improvement," the plan says.

The administration will also move to "reconstitute" as many as 13 schools subject to restructuring under the No Child Left Behind law, requiring all staff to reapply for jobs and limiting the percentage who may return. Other schools could be placed in the hands of private operators or reopened as charter schools.

The draft is silent about other options under discussion, including seeking legislation that would allow the city to create its own non-union charter schools or declare the school system in a "state of emergency." Such measures could release the District from its obligation to bargain with the Washington Teachers' Union. The District and the union have spent the past year trying to negotiate a new contract, but talks are stalled over Rhee's proposal to weaken tenure protections in exchange for large salary increases and bonuses.

The report also addresses at length the issue of parent involvement and is at one point bluntly critical of families for accepting, even supporting, mediocre schools.

"Too many of our students' parents are uninformed consumers of public education who blindly support the District's public schools without full knowledge of the significant deficiencies of the schools," the document says.

It proposes outreach measures, including information and training sessions, covering everything from adult literacy to parenting skills. The plan raises the idea of collaborating with other community-based organizations to open a "Parent Academy" that would teach parents "the full set of basic skills necessary to be a successful participant" in their child's education.

Cherita Whiting, chairwoman of the Ward 4 Education Council, said such an idea might be useful but wondered whose idea of effective advocacy would be taught in such settings. If it were D.C. school administrators', she said, that would be a problem.

"Are they going to teach how to look for what the chancellor is doing wrong? That's my concern," she said. "Where's the transparency going to come from?"

The plan is available on the school system's Web site. Go to http://www.k12.dc.us/chancellor/schedule_forums.htm, then click on "Full Plan."

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