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For McKinley Students, a Lesson in Disappointment
Staff Layoffs Moved Them to Get Involved, but D.C. Politics Soured the Experience, Seniors Say

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When Edward Doxen ran his successful campaign for student government president at McKinley Technology High School last spring, he looked to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty as the model urban politician: savvy, hard-charging, inclusive. At home, he kept a picture of the two of them, taken when Doxen became a member of the mayor's youth advisory group. He thought about studying political science when he got to college.

These days, Doxen is considering a psychology major. He is deeply disappointed in Fenty's handling of the Oct. 2 layoffs that resulted in the dismissal of 388 D.C. teachers and staff, including 15 at McKinley. More troubling than the cuts, he said, is Fenty's unwillingness to account for them in a town hall or other public forum.

"I'm just confused about why he hasn't talked about the whole thing," said Doxen, 17, who wants to attend Fordham University. "You always hear stories about how dirty politics is. Now I have some personal experience."

Doxen and three other McKinley seniors who marched to protest the layoffs have found themselves in the midst of a bitter adult struggle that involves politicians, educators and labor leaders. They were courted, encouraged and criticized. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee met with them for 90 minutes. One of them was invited to speak at last week's teacher rally in Freedom Plaza.

For the most part, they are not inspired by what they have seen.

"It just seems like everybody was trying to make themselves look better," said Brittany Timmons, 17, McKinley's student government vice president.

Looking back, they said they still do not understand why Rhee would introduce a new teacher evaluation system and then fail to use it in deciding who would be dismissed. They are convinced that their principal, David Pinder, pursued a personal agenda in laying off some McKinley teachers, including two popular guidance counselors, Sheila Gill and Rhonda Robinson. And they are angry at Fenty (D), who they say laughed at some classmates who tried to speak with him at Ron Brown Middle School last week.

Fenty's office did not respond to two e-mailed and two telephoned requests for comment.

Asked what he learned last week, Ike Umez-Eronini said: "The more you get into power, the less you take responsibility for your actions."

Umez-Eronini, who wants to study marketing and history at the University of California at Los Angeles, led students on a day-long march Oct. 5 across the District, from McKinley to Rhee's office on North Capitol Street and finally to the John A. Wilson Building. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and council members, including Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward5), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), spoke to them and pledged their support.

The most authentic, in the students' estimation, was Barry, who they said seemed to speak most candidly. In the session with them, Barry accused Rhee of lying to students about the need for the layoffs.

Rhee, who invited them last Wednesday to the conference room adjacent to her office, began the meeting by asking, according to Umez-Eronini, "did we want to ask questions or talk about our feelings?"

The group had questions, but said it found the session disappointing because Rhee seemed to deflect responsibility toward the council (for the budget cuts) and her principals (for decisions about whom to fire). According to notes they took, Rhee said "council members don't understand how title programs work," referring to the council's assertion that the layoffs should have been averted because of the availability of federal funds.

Pressed on the fairness of some of the firings at McKinley and elsewhere, Rhee said, "She can't make the decisions, trusts principal's decisions," according to the notes.

Rhee said Tuesday that she was reluctant to comment on a secondhand account of the meeting. "Was I able to fully address all of their issues? I would say we probably addressed some of their concerns," she said, adding that personnel rules probably made it impossible to tell them everything they wanted to know.

Pinder, responding by e-mail, said McKinley's layoffs were done with the goal of ensuring the least impact to its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) offerings, professional development for teachers and student schedules. "Of our 710 students, fewer than 100 saw new course changes," he said.

He also said he understood the students' anger over the layoffs. "Our students love all their teachers and counselors. They love them because they are a part of the McKinley family. Reflecting on this process will require dialogue, time and healing. But I am confident our students will grow from this experience and come to understand."

But the McKinley students say the school will not be the same. Jessy Beach, a student government representative, said she is considering a transfer to School Without Walls because the turmoil over the layoffs has become so distracting.

Umez-Eronini agreed, saying that the chances of "a normal senior year" were slim. He also lamented that life in D.C public schools often means being caught up in one adult dispute or another.

"I'm tired of always being somebody's pawn or guinea pig," he said.

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