D.C. presumptive Mayor Gray should keep Bedford team at Dunbar, Coolidge highs

By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 20, 2010

As prospective mayor Vincent C. Gray's education advisers begin to discuss changes in the way Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee ran the D.C. schools, it should quickly become apparent that they should keep their hands off one of Rhee's smartest moves -- handing management of Coolidge and Dunbar high schools to a sharp team of educators from New York.

Lost in all the primary election skirmishing over teacher dismissals and conflicting test score data was this encouraging statistic: Under the Friends of Bedford group, in just its first year here, the portion of students testing proficient or advanced in reading went from 38 to 53.6 percent at Coolidge and from 18.2 to 31.9 percent at Dunbar. No other high school in the city came close to making such gains in a subject in which improvement here has been rare.

The three Bedford partners I discussed this with at their office at Dunbar are a wily bunch. Their leader, George Leonard, has known his partners, Niaka (pronounced Na-KEE-ya) Gaston and Bevon Thompson, since they were his star biology students at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. They usually refrain from comment on the bizarre twists of D.C. politics.

They compliment Rhee for what she has done for them and the school system but say they expect the Gray team will give them similar backing. "Our body of work should be good for something," Leonard said.

They acknowledge that the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests that made their language arts program look so good were given to only 110 students at Coolidge and 141 students at Dunbar, because only 10th-graders take the DC-CAS in high school. Still, those students came from the same disadvantaged homes as sophomores at most of the other schools and did much better.

The Bedford team junked a block schedule that confused students and teachers, installed classroom walls to end Dunbar's hideous open-space design, provided intensive volunteer tutoring after school and worked hard to make sure students took advantage of it. The team hired and trained teachers carefully. It sought the safe and orderly school environment that brought success to the small public Bedford Academy, the school it created in Brooklyn that initially caught Rhee's eye.

Not everything worked. A small school-within-a-school at Dunbar for dropouts and frequent absentees failed to get the results Leonard wanted, so he brought those students back into the main student body. An unexpected change in the school system's security company slowed efforts to end wandering in the halls during classes, a scourge of urban high school culture.

The team is working on that and says order has improved. Getting students back to class after lunch is still a struggle. "If you say you are going to clear those halls every day, that means every period," Gaston said. Otherwise, they "go right back to the way they were."

Teacher problems such as broken locks on classroom doors are fixed immediately. When D.C. officials asked the group what it expected in terms of student suspensions during its first months, the Bedford partners saw shocked looks when they said suspensions would go up if order was to be restored. They made several changes in the way math was taught after the DC-CAS results showed proficiency at Dunbar dropping from 24.4 to 23.8 percent and increasing only from 43 to 48.2 percent at Coolidge.

Leonard has installed himself as principal at Dunbar this year. It is not going to be easy to maintain the momentum, but he says he thinks his teachers and students trust him more. He hopes the same will be true of the new Gray administration.

For more Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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