Jay Mathews: Major changes at 2 troubled D.C. high schools

By Jay Mathews
Monday, October 26, 2009

After days of frantic blogging on the latest D.C. schools crisis and trading speculation with interested readers, I find it refreshing to visit three educators who are making major changes in two of the city's lowest-performing high schools. Unlike me and many of the people I exchange comments with, they know what they are talking about.

George Leonard, 57, chief executive officer of the Friends of Bedford group from New York; Chief Financial Officer Bevon Thompson, 35; and Chief Operating Officer Niaka Gaston, 34, sit around a table in the basement of the District's Dunbar High School. The school was so dark and filthy when they first saw it that they cringe at the memory.

Dunbar and Coolidge high schools, both educational disaster areas, are under the command of their consulting company. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee handed them the keys to the two schools because of the rigor and high graduation rates they brought to a small public high school, the Bedford Academy, in a low-income neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Perplexed by D.C. politics, they dismiss some myths that live in the blogosphere about Rhee's cut of 380 jobs a few weeks after school started. Neither Rhee nor any other central office personnel told them whom to fire, they say. They were told they would be getting $229 less per pupil than they had expected, but they decided how many employees had to be dismissed to stay on budget and which ones would get the bad news.

They did not get rid of experienced teachers as part of a Rhee plot to weaken the Washington Teachers' Union, as some allege. They protected their classroom slots and instead cut, with regret, administrative and counseling personnel -- five at Dunbar and three at Coolidge. Those cuts included a teacher who had already decided to move to Ohio for personal reasons, they say.

They don't blame any particular person at school headquarters or on the D.C. Council for the sudden cut in their budget. But they cannot get over the notion that any school district would consider cutting staff in the first month of the school year.

"Who does that?!" asks Gaston, a Columbia University graduate who, like Thompson, a Georgetown graduate, met Leonard when they were his star biology students at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. Gaston's voice rises. He waves his arms in wonder. They all laugh in astonishment at the stuff being thrown at them in this strange town, D.C.

"They said there was going to be something called an RIF," Leonard says. "We said: 'What's that? Reading Is Fundamental?' " No, they were told, it meant Reduction In Force: They would have to cut jobs. In September? Who does that?

Leonard says the city budget cuts forced Rhee's hand. Just as bad, he says, was the disappearance of the schools' original security guards, whose company went out of business at the same time. A new crew came in, but the Bedford team had spent weeks building a rapport -- their favorite management technique -- with the former guards. They had trained them to help sweep students into class when the bell rang. It worked. The aimless hall wanderers they had seen when they first visited Dunbar and Coolidge were in class. With the old guards gone, they have to train a new group.

Still, they are optimistic because so much at the two schools has changed. They have strong local support. Dunbar and Coolidge community members came to New York to recruit them and won a fight with Anacostia High supporters for their services.

At their insistence, Rhee installed classroom walls at Dunbar, whose open-space design was considered insane by everyone. Both schools were cleaned. They junked the block schedule that had students in different classes on different days, an invitation to more chaos. The 882 students at Dunbar and the 604 at Coolidge now have seven 45-minute periods a day.

They also picked new principals, Stephen Jackson (whom they brought from New York) at Dunbar and Thelma Jarrett (a D.C. veteran) at Coolidge. With order improving, they are focusing on teaching -- setting standards for assessment (they want every class to have a short quiz every day) and helping teachers realize how much good they can do (the Bedford team likes the personal touch, a combination of toughness and fun).

D.C. surprised them. They say they will return the favor.


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