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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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"There will be some resistance," he said. "But you can't look at the test scores and say that the status quo is okay."

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In a statement, Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said, "Over the next three years DCPS expects to see significant increases in student achievement, with dramatic improvements in instructional rigor, school culture and climate and student engagement."

The reluctance of city officials to share some types of information might be linked to the problems Friendship has run into at Anacostia, where the charter group was not the first choice of community members who were consulted on possible partners.

"Nobody actually knows what they're doing," said Marvin Tucker, an Anacostia parent. "They haven't even tried to contact us."

Parents also questioned Friendship's credentials, citing problems at its high school, Collegiate Academy, which is in "corrective action," a lesser form of federal sanction, because of poor test scores.

District officials point out that Friendship Collegiate Academy still outperforms most District high schools and that test scores are only part of the picture. Founder Donald Hense said he understands that he is operating in an environment of mistrust and cynicism.

"The skepticism is going to exist until the families who send their children to Anacostia actually begin to believe that we are truly interested in their children," said Hense, who plans to divide the 950-student school into four "academies": two for ninth-graders, one for grades 10 to 12 and one for overage students requiring intensive attention.

Bedford is headed by George Leonard, a former biology teacher who founded the school in 2003 under New York City's "empowerment school" program, which granted him broad control over budget and other matters. His goal was a school culture that combined discipline with nurture. "An iron fist dipped in honey."

He established mandatory after-school tutoring for struggling students -- he confirms stories that he and his staff blocked the exits at 3 p.m. to keep students inside -- and compulsory Saturday sessions for SAT and state Regents exam preparation, running from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the weeks leading up to the tests. There is a "summer bridge" program to help incoming ninth-graders.

His approach to discipline includes the automatic suspension of any male student who curses or disrespects a female.

"The way we're seeing young ladies treated the last eight months has been unacceptable," said Niaka Gaston, a Bedford administrator who spent the past school year observing Dunbar and Coolidge.

Leonard's message to parents is double-edged. He said he has an open-door policy and counts on them to participate. At Bedford, for example, parents are expected to provide meals for the "nine-to-nines," the marathon test-preparation Saturdays in the spring. But he also told them at an orientation a few years ago: "Just stay out of my way and let me create the scholar, because you're usually the problem. I'll see you at graduation."


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