By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009; C01
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.
"There will be some resistance," he said. "But you can't look at the test scores and say that the status quo is okay."
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."
The formula appears to have worked. Leonard graduated nearly all of his first senior class on time in 2007, sending many of them on to colleges and universities such as Morehouse, Temple and the State University of New York. He clearly takes the District assignment as a personal challenge, especially Dunbar, the city's first black high school, which once educated its black elite.
A powerfully built man prone to flights of motivational oratory ("This project is so challenging it's going to make us great!" he exulted in a recent interview), Leonard, 56, said he knew he had accepted a daunting job. Just how daunting took awhile to understand. He said he wasn't prepared for the depth of the dysfunction.
Instead of engaging their classes, teachers sat silently at their desks as students filled out worksheets. Rates of absenteeism, for students and instructors, were appalling.
"This is a major challenge," he said. "The buildings are filthy, people are frustrated. There's no real encouragement. I feel a lot has been lost here."
He and his staff moved to the District last year, ceding full-time control of Bedford to others in his organization. They face the task of transplanting their school culture into dramatically different soil. Bedford was a small school -- 350 students to Dunbar's 900 and Coolidge's 650. In addition, he had some control over admissions at Bedford, but he will be obligated to take all eligible students within the Dunbar and Coolidge attendance zones.
Leonard and his deputies said they are bringing values that can take root under any conditions.
"With time, I believe our relationship with DCPS is such that everybody will understand that we're not just talk," he said. "We have to show and prove."