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Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee: We fought for D.C. schools. Now it's up to you.

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By Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Since June 12, 2007, we have had the honor and privilege of working with the students and families of this city as the first mayor and chancellor to lead the District of Columbia Public Schools under mayoral control. It was with heavy hearts but also optimism for the future that we announced Wednesday our mutual agreement with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray: It is time for us to step aside and time for the city to move forward with new leadership for our schools.

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We have enjoyed each and every moment of our tenure. Even in times of stark disagreement, you, the citizens of Washington, have inspired us with your strong beliefs and your willingness to fight for the children of this community.

When the two of us began this journey together, we made a pact with each other. We pledged that we would always put children first and make decisions that would be in their best interest, even when -- especially when -- we knew it would cause consternation among adults. This pact was our true north. In many ways, it cut through the hard choices to something clear and simple: We would fight for the right of every parent to promise and provide their children an excellent education. We would insist on a school system that backed up that promise. We would ensure that children received the skills and knowledge they needed to do anything they wanted in life.

During the 2006 mayoral campaign, everyone in the city agreed on one thing: The schools needed to be fixed. Your mandate drove us every day for the past 3½ years.

We've made tremendous strides. On the nation's gold standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we've gone from being the worst-performing school district in the country to a force of 46,000 children who lead the nation in gains -- with some of the greatest advances coming from our students of color, students receiving special-education services and students formally learning the English language for the first time.

On our local exam, we've increased student achievement in all subject areas and grade levels. At the secondary levels, these gains are unparalleled anywhere in the country. More students are graduating and ready to attend college, our schools are safer and our parents are more satisfied. A greater percentage of the system's taxpayer dollars are going directly to the classroom, where they belong, instead of supporting a bloated and formerly inefficient central office. The operational issues that long plagued our schools (undelivered books, late paychecks and shoddy facilities) are quickly becoming complaints of the past.

We absolutely believe the progress can continue. Our presumptive new mayor is a native Washingtonian who cares deeply about education. We leave behind arguably the most talented and driven team that a school district administration could have. They are in the schools; they are in the central office; they are in other District agencies partnering with DCPS to modernize schools and update and support technologies. All of these people and more are getting up every morning and doing the incredibly difficult work that the cameras don't see. As leaders, we simply "blocked and tackled" so that they could get things done.

Led by a new mayor, this team can deliver on what the school system owes your children. And whether you are a parent who sends your kids off to school each day trusting other adults' eyes and guidance, or a citizen who passes children walking to school on your way to work, or a worker from outside the District who depends on city services, these are your children.

We have laid a foundation, but the hardest steps are yet to come. Despite tremendous progress across all eight wards, there is still an incredibly long way to go before we can say that the school system is providing every child with the education that is theirs by right in this country. If the past 3½ years are any indication of how much persistence it will take to get this right, we know this work will remain the central challenge the city will face on its way to long-lasting economic stability, vibrant communities in every neighborhood and a high quality of life for all who live here.

When it came to ensuring broad support for our work, we fell short. The lessons learned from that weakness, however, can become a strength. We reach out today to ask the entire community to embrace the school reform efforts in the months and years ahead. We know how determined the people of this city are, and if we collectively support Gray, his staff and the DCPS team with all the will and energy we can summon, there will be no stopping our children.

Gray and his team will face many difficult choices, and no doubt some of the actions they'll have to take -- such as deciding what to do with teachers who are rated minimally effective -- will stir controversy. As a community, it is our obligation to ensure that these leaders have the support they need to act courageously and aggressively. School reform will and must be driven by dedicated residents who understand the serious, long-term consequences of failing to fix the city's foundering educational system.

This time, however, the pact cannot merely be between two people. It must be forged among an entire community. Gray and the team at DCPS can succeed if they have your support to do all that is necessary for the young people we are trusting our schools to shape. We ask you to learn from our mistakes, stand by the commitment to continue the momentum of the past 3½ years and, most important, believe that our children are capable of blowing your minds with their achievements.

If you set high expectations and give them the tools they need, they will do it every time.

Adrian Fenty is mayor of the District. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, is stepping down at the end of the month.

For recent Outlook coverage of the school-reform debate, see "How to fix our schools: A manifesto," by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other school district leaders and "Why aren't our teachers the best and the brightest?" by Paul Kihn and Matt Miller.


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