D.C. schools chancellor likened to Harry Potter villain

By Ann E. Marimow
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; B04

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has been called many things since she took over the District's public schools in 2007. But it was likely a first when a middle school student on Monday compared Rhee to Harry Potter villain Dolores Umbridge, a cruel teacher at fictional Hogwarts Academy.

More than 100 Hardy Middle School students crowded into the D.C. Council chamber during a marathon oversight session that included protests of Rhee's decision to remove the school's popular principal, demands for an apology from teachers fired by her administration and pointed questions about her budget.

The discontent conveyed in the all-day session of testimony was not just about a single principal or fired teacher but represented larger concerns about Rhee's leadership and that of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who appointed her. Presiding over the hearing was Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is considering a primary challenge to Fenty and was largely sympathetic to the former teachers, students and parents lined up to complain.

Rhee, who is scheduled to testify in a separate hearing next week, has said that she did not accept the job of overhauling the city's troubled schools to be popular. A recent Post poll showed that residents see improvement in the school system in areas such as teacher quality and school safety.

For the first hour of Monday's session, Rhee watched from the front row, sometimes tapping on one of two BlackBerry devices in hand, as educators who had been let go last year criticized her comments in January to a national magazine. Rhee sparked a controversy when she told "Fast Company" magazine that an unspecified number of the 266 teachers laid off in October had physically or sexually abused students. She later explained that five had been suspended for corporal punishment and one was under investigation for sexual misconduct.

About a half dozen former educators at the hearing were wearing T-shirts with the message: "I am not a child molester." Former school counselor Brenda Eichelberger said Rhee should apologize for the sweeping characterization and provide references to those who were dismissed and have had trouble finding new jobs.

Rhee said in an interview that she would not apologize because "that statement was in fact true," but she said it was "important to clarify that not everyone fell into that position."

Outside the John A. Wilson Building, members of Hardy's marching band played their sousaphones and bass drums to demonstrate support for Principal Patrick Pope, founder of the arts and music program that draws a majority African American student body from across the city to the Georgetown school. Rhee has announced that Pope will be replaced in June by Hyde-Addison Elementary's principal in what she has said is an effort to strengthen Hardy's identity as a neighborhood school. Pope has been assigned to plan an art-centered magnet middle school.

Eighth-grader Angela Marsh-Coan said Rhee is "breaking the heart and soul of the school." Seventh-grader Claire Murphy Keller said Rhee was beginning to look like "a real-life Dolores Umbridge," eliciting laughter from the audience.

Rhee said she was sticking to her decision. "We appreciate that, often, change is not easy," said Rhee's spokesman, Jennifer Calloway, in a statement. She added that the magnet school Pope will lead will "provide wonderful, first-time opportunities for many students across the district, and Hardy will continue to thrive under new leadership."

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