Is there racism in Washington's school reform?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

EXHIBIT A in the indictment of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as caring little about the education of poor black children is Hardy Middle School. Her ouster of the school's principal was said to be a prelude to attracting white students to the Georgetown school at the expense of black students who, lacking viable educational opportunities in their own neighborhoods, make up the bulk of enrollment at the arts-oriented school. The only problems with that argument -- like most of the charges about Ms. Rhee's supposed indifference to black children -- are the facts. As a result of Ms. Rhee's changes, enrollment at the school increased from 419 students to 520 students this year, with the effect that there are more children from predominantly African American neighborhoods, including those east of the Anacostia River.

There is no denying the stark racial divide of the recent mayoral primary. Many residents of distressed black neighborhoods believe that white, affluent neighborhoods are routinely afforded more attention and resources. Historically there are plenty of grounds for resentment. But any suggestion that Ms. Rhee lacks either passion for or interest in raising the achievement levels of black students -- along with those of white, Latino and special-education pupils -- is a slander. The charge seriously misreads the past three years and 10 months and how Ms. Rhee has worked to fix a system that was notorious for its inability to provide textbooks to students, much less educate them.

"By any measure, the public schools in D.C. are dramatically better today than when they started," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on "Meet the Press," referring to the reform efforts of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Ms. Rhee. Under Ms. Rhee's leadership, the District went from having the country's worst scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to leading the nation in the rate of improvement. African American students make up about 75 percent of the public school enrollment and -- contrary to claims by critics -- they have not been left behind. On local test scores, 23.93 percent of black elementary students were proficient in math and 32.62 percent were proficient in reading in 2007; the percentages rose to 36.9 in math and 38.77 in reading in 2010. The gains of black secondary-school students were even more remarkable: In 2007, 22.48 percent were proficient in math and 25.85 percent were proficient in reading, compared with 37.59 percent proficient in math and 38.05 percent in reading in 2010.

Of course, those numbers are still woefully unacceptable, as Ms. Rhee is the first to say -- which is why she has directed resources to students most in need. She established full-service schools where additional staff is provided to offer wrap-around services and other supports to improve student behavior; most are located in Wards 6, 7 and 8. Another program, DC Start, provides early mental health intervention; of the 10 schools allocated a full-time social worker, five are located in Wards 5, 7 and 8. Another program provides coaches for special-education students; of the 16 schools participating in this effort, nine are located in Ward 8 and three are in Ward 7. There are also new tutors for students at risk of dropping out and coordinated support programs for students who are pregnant or who have children.

Ms. Rhee has moved aggressively to make changes in failing schools. Twenty schools in Wards 7 and 8 have been restructured, including those, like Anacostia High School, that are being managed by an innovative charter partner. In the past year, Ms. Rhee held more community meetings in Ward 8 (10 meetings) and Ward 7 (11) than in Ward 2 (four) or Ward 3 (six). Meanwhile, information from school facilities chief Allen Y. Lew shows that renovations and repairs were undertaken throughout the city. The most money spent in fiscal 2008 and 2009 was for work in Ward 5, followed by Ward 8.

Has Ms. Rhee sought to attract support and participation from the middle class, both white and black, while also meeting the needs of poor children? We would certainly hope so. Economic diversity makes for a healthy school system, and families that pay the bulk of taxes that support the school system should be welcomed. Instead of being faulted for wooing new parents to the schools, Ms. Rhee should be applauded for helping rebuild confidence in the system; for the first time in decades, school enrollment has increased this year.

Since D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's victory in the Democratic mayoral primary, we haven't waded into the conversation on whether the presumptive mayor-elect should retain Ms. Rhee. In our view, he's entitled to some space and time to weigh such a crucial decision and to work with a chancellor he's confident in. But he should be allowed to base his decision on facts, not fears or fantasy. School reform in Washington has not been anti-black.

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