D.C. Council questions Rhee's plan to reassign Hardy principal

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

There are 123 public schools in the District. But anyone sitting through the first two hours of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's appearance before the D.C. Council on Monday could be forgiven for thinking there is only one: Hardy Middle School.

Rhee's decision to reassign Principal Patrick Pope has sparked an intense lobbying campaign by a group of Hardy parents who have pressed their case in private meetings with almost every council member. They say that Rhee's decision will irreparably harm an academically successful Georgetown arts and music specialty school that draws a majority African American student body from across the city.

The results of that pressure were on display Monday. Although Rhee reports to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, members of the council, all up for reelection this fall, must answer to constituents unhappy with some of her decisions, and they took turns venting their frustration.

"The potential efficacy of this has escaped me," said Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who called the school a model of economic and racial diversity. "We surely have a lot of other things to fix in the District of Columbia."

"The quandary for me is, you have something that is working well," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "Why are we upsetting this?"

"We've got to find a way to defuse this going forward," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).

Several members, including Gray, implored Rhee to reverse her decision, but she held fast.

"We continue to believe that this is the right way to go," said Rhee, who offered five hours of sworn testimony Monday, some of it on other topics.

Rhee announced late last year that Pope, who has served at Hardy since 1998, would be replaced in June by Dana Nerenberg, principal of nearby Hyde-Addison Elementary. She will run both schools.

Rhee has said that she wants to reinforce Hardy's identity as a neighborhood school despite its citywide enrollment and that placing Nerenberg there will more effectively send that signal. Only a about a third of the current sixth-grade class comes from surrounding "feeder" elementary schools.

Rhee has also said she thinks Pope is best suited to begin planning a middle school arts magnet that she would like to open in fall 2012.

Privately, school officials have expressed concern about the autonomy Pope has been able to exercise in school admissions, based on a 2003 decision by the Board of Education that designated Hardy a "special program." Pope has historically filled the school through an application process that involves a student essay, teacher references, parental commitment to the school uniform policy and other requirements.

Families in the school's attendance area are guaranteed spots in the school. But D.C. officials say they've received calls in the past few years from out-of-boundary families expressing frustration about their inability to gain admission to Hardy.

In a recent meeting, officials asked Pope about scenarios in which he might turn away out-of-boundary applicants. He mentioned students with special education needs that had not been assessed and children from "unstable" family backgrounds.

Rhee has said out-of-boundary families that win slots at Hardy through the District's online lottery should be able to gain admission with "good faith" completion of the application, without regard to special education or family status. The school's parent leaders want the application process to remain as it is and for Pope to continue as principal.

Rhee told the council there had been "a lot of rumors" about the future of the school. She assured members that Hardy's popular arts and music program would remain and that all children attending the school would have a right to continue there. She also said the size of the building means there is ample room for children from outside the school's attendance boundary.

Council members said that Rhee has made the issue more complicated than it needed to be by being unclear about her intentions. Rhee acknowledged that communications with the Hardy community were not what they could have been.

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