Hardy Middle parents, staff decry replacement of principal

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sarah Bax, an award-winning math teacher at Hardy Middle School in Georgetown, goes back many years with Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, once her trainer in the Teach for America program.

But Bax had a warning for her old mentor Friday night, after Rhee announced her decision to replace Patrick Pope, the popular longtime principal.

"This is a grave, grave error," Bax said. "This staff will not be here when Mr. Pope is not here."

Bax was part of a standing-room-only crowd of parents, teachers and students infuriated by Rhee's decision to change leadership at the school, home to a highly regarded arts and instrumental music program that draws a predominantly African American student body from all wards of the city.

Rhee said Pope would finish the academic year at Hardy and then begin planning a new magnet middle school for the performing arts. He will be replaced this summer by Dana Nerenberg, principal of nearby Hyde-Addison Elementary, who will run both as a unified pre-kindergarten through eighth grade program.

Rhee, who promised that Hardy's arts curriculum would not change and that the school would remain open to out-of-boundary enrollment, is looking for ways to retain more of the city's white middle class families, who usually leave the public school system after the fourth or fifth grade.

But in a tense and often angry two-hour session in the school cafeteria, punctuated by calls of "liar" and "no BS," Rhee was confronted by accusations that she wanted to squeeze minority students out of Hardy to make it more palatable for white families from neighborhood "feeder" schools. Some said the neighborhood wants to "take back" Hardy now that a $48 million renovation is complete.

Rhee, who has held meetings over the past year with parents at nearby elementary schools such as Key, said they have long been confused by Hardy's application process, which she said left the misimpression that it was not a neighborhood school open to all within its attendance area.

Members of the Hardy community said that was insulting and absurd and that elementary parents have heard years of presentations from Pope and his teachers about how Hardy operates. They also took issue with meetings Rhee has held with feeder school parents over the past year while failing to consult with Hardy's parent leadership.

Jeffrey Watson, who sent two sons to Hardy, said neighborhood parents stayed away because they were not comfortable with the racial composition of the school.

"Don't play games with people in here. We're not stupid," Watson said. "Rather than having private meetings with them, tell them to walk on over."

Rhee said she found the suggestion that race factored into her dealings with neighborhood parents to be "extraordinarily disconcerting."

"In none of the conversations that I have had about Hardy, with parents either at school currently or at the feeder schools, has anyone said they were said they were concerned with the racial makeup of the school," Rhee said.

But Pope's fate remained the focal point of the emotionally raw evening. Many were upset by recent public statements, one from a Rhee staff member and another from Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, that there would be no leadership change. The audience repeatedly asked Rhee to reconcile her praise for Pope's record with her decision to replace him with a much younger, less experienced elementary school principal who would have to split her time between two buildings.

Asked whether she offered Pope the option to stay at Hardy rather than accept the planning job, Rhee said: "I gave him the offer. He accepted the offer." Pope attended the meeting but did not speak. Asked afterward whether he was offered a chance to remain, he declined to comment.

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