Takeover Agents Confront the Challenges Ahead at Two D.C. High Schools

"This is a major challenge," says George Leonard, in a Dunbar classroom. "The buildings are filthy, people are frustrated. . . . I feel a lot has been lost here."
"This is a major challenge," says George Leonard, in a Dunbar classroom. "The buildings are filthy, people are frustrated. . . . I feel a lot has been lost here." (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls it "the toughest work in urban education today" -- fixing neighborhood high schools filled with students who have languished in failing elementary and middle schools.

Ten of the District's 15 high schools are in some form of federally mandated restructuring under the No Child Left Behind Act because of persistent failure to meet annual achievement benchmarks on standardized tests. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is looking to outside organizations for help in turning them around.

This summer, Friends of Bedford, which operates a Brooklyn public high school that has become New York City's most successful, has taken control of Coolidge and Dunbar senior high schools. Friendship Public Charter Schools, which serves about 4,000 students on six D.C. campuses, is running Anacostia Senior High School.

Rhee has also started discussions with Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Schools, which operates Locke Senior High School in Los Angeles, one of the city's largest and most troubled schools, about working in the District. Barr recently toured Eastern High School on Capitol Hill, although District officials said discussions are in an extremely preliminary stage.

Anacostia, Coolidge and Dunbar are all stark examples of the challenge Duncan describes, places where scholarship and discipline flicker weakly at best. Fewer than a third of students read and write proficiently, according to citywide tests. A 2008 review of Dunbar by District officials said, "Evidence of effective teaching and learning was limited to a few individual teachers." On a single day in November, 19 girls were arrested for fighting.

At Anacostia, where last fall five students were injured, including three with stab wounds, after a melee, District evaluators were told by a student focus group that teachers "make it easy" for them to pass. Coolidge classes were "consistently interrupted by students coming in and out . . . oftentimes to look for friends," according to a 2008 review.

Of the remedies available under No Child Left Behind -- which include wholesale replacement of teachers and administrators and even conversion to a charter school -- outside partnerships are among the least popular. Deep-pocketed players, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the for-profit Edison Project, have spent enormous sums trying to reimagine the American high school but have achieved mixed results at best.

Experts say one of the lessons learned is that starting a school from scratch is usually easier than taking control of an existing one, where political feuds, bureaucratic inertia and scar tissue from past reform attempts can make change difficult.

"You have to work against a prevailing culture that is a failed culture," said Thomas Toch, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington and an expert on school takeovers. "That's very hard to do if you can't bring your own people in and hit the refresh button."

Friendship and Friends of Bedford will face that challenge at Anacostia, Dunbar and Coolidge. Although they have autonomy on matters of curriculum, instruction and teacher professional development, the schools' staff members will remain school system employees, subject to District laws and union rules.

Rhee selected the two organizations in 2008 and gave them a year to plan the transition. Details are closely held. Neither Rhee nor Justin Cohen, her deputy in charge of the partnership program, would agree to an interview. Requests for copies of quarterly progress reports and evaluations were also denied.

Dunbar PTSA President Leon Braddell, who helped select Friends of Bedford and watched it prepare for the takeover, is optimistic.

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