New D.C. Principal, Hand-Picked Team Make Early Gains

By Jay Mathews
Monday, December 1, 2008

While D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee fights the Washington Teachers' Union over her plan to give principals unprecedented power to mold their staffs, at least one of her latest hires already has such authority. Brian Betts, principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, personally selected 28 of his 35 teachers and other workers last summer. He eliminated homeroom periods and recess as wastes of time, instituted daily teacher training and told some instructors that they wouldn't last the school year if he didn't see enough energy in their classrooms.

That's not all. The 41-year-old former Montgomery County middle school assistant principal said he wanted a school full of ambitious, young teachers "before they were jaded." So he hired just two with more than five years of experience. He also visited scores of students and parents before school started, asking them, among other things, how they felt about a white man running a school where all of the students were black or Hispanic.

With that unconventional beginning, Betts has showed how far Rhee is willing to go to change a culture long dominated by apathy and hopelessness. The scrappy leader of a school formed from the merger of two of the city's worst has Rhee's blessing. She is proud of stealing Betts and Wilson High School Principal Peter Cahall from Montgomery. When I sought permission to track a principal to help me examine the latest attempt to revive D.C. schools, she sent me to Betts.

What he is attempting looks similar to what successful public charter schools have done: aggressively recruiting young, enthusiastic teachers, dropping anything that gets in the way of learning, letting everyone know that he or she will be judged on performance and developing strong relations among staff, students and parents.

Students and parents told Betts that many teachers they knew at Shaw and Garnet-Patterson didn't care about them. "Nothing that I have ever seen trumps personal relationships at this level," Betts said. "The kids in this building who can be absolutely horrible in one person's class can be angelic in another because they have formed a relationship with that teacher."

The very preliminary results look good. Diagnostic tests given to students at the end of the first term show progress. But as charter school leaders have found, putting persistent pressure to achieve on teachers and students forces painful adjustments -- like an ex-smoker trying to run three miles a day. Few distressed urban schools go through such transformations without friction, and the much-debated money-for-good-grades experiment at Shaw poses another complication.

The new era for D.C. education, as envisioned by Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), started earlier at Shaw than elsewhere because of an unusual confluence of bad news. The No Child Left Behind law required both Shaw and Garnet-Patterson to be reorganized because of subpar test scores. Both buildings needed repairs. Officials decided that students from the two campuses would be united as Shaw students but attend class at the Garnet-Patterson building while Shaw's was rebuilt.

Rhee's recruiters found Betts at Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring. He was ready for a change after failing to get even an interview for four principal positions, a common complaint in a suburban school system full of talent. Coming to the District meant a smaller pension and a pay cut, but Betts craved adventure and a chance to help students who, like him, had parents who did not go to college. He knew the area, having once lived in Shaw as a young teacher for 14 years, upgrading an old rowhouse and serving as president of the French Street Neighborhood Association.

Betts brought in two young teaching stars from Loiederman -- Marco Martinez for reading and Carol Cienfuegos for math -- to coach what would be an almost entirely new staff. The Shaw teachers' jobs were guaranteed, but only five decided to stay amid the chaos. Fifteen Garnet-Patterson teachers interviewed with Betts, but only one met his standards. The staff is two-thirds African American and one-quarter Hispanic, with the rest white.

In each interview, Betts, Martinez and Cienfuegos saved what they considered the most important question for last: "Shaw and Garnet-Patterson have proficiency rates in both math and reading in the low 20 percents. To what do you attribute this poor performance and what do you plan to do or do differently next year to improve test scores and student achievement?"

A young teacher from New Jersey named Meredith Leonard was hired after saying: "Every kid can learn, and we all say that, but what is missing is the last part of the sentence: Every kid can learn given the motivation, given the supports, given the expectations. I will be motivating my kids, I will be giving my kids the support and I will be expecting them to do it."

Many more applicants, including experienced teachers, blamed the bad test scores on undereducated parents and impoverished homes and suggested that those social ailments would be hard to cure. They weren't hired. Betts is happy to be left with an eager and optimistic staff. Still, he does not have much time to prove that he and Rhee are right about this, with me and everyone else watching.


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