Hardy Middle in Georgetown suffering in transition to new leadership, some say

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 8:00 PM

Parents and teachers at Hardy Middle School hoped that this fall something resembling normal would return. Last year's decision by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to reassign Principal Patrick Pope mushroomed into a mayoral campaign issue and left their community divided by race and class tensions.

But despite Rhee's assurances that the Georgetown school's special identity would remain intact - anchored in its citywide enrollment and fine arts and instrumental music program - parents and staff say Hardy has suffered in the transition to new leadership. They say the school stands as a monument to some of the most damaging missteps of Rhee's tenure.

Hardy still draws a majority black enrollment from across all of the city's wards. The number of incoming sixth-graders from surrounding elementary "feeder" schools has also increased, which was an objective Rhee had pursued.

But returning parents and teachers say the school climate has deteriorated, with a rise in tardiness, fights and disrespectful behavior toward a less experienced administrative team. A shift in the daily schedule, from "block" periods of one hour or more to conventional 43- to 46-minute classes, has diluted the quality of the arts and music offerings, some parents and staff say.

"It's gone from being an arts- and music-focused school to a generic, standard middle school," said seventh-grade math teacher Luke Sunukjian, an eight-year veteran.

They also contend that Rhee's decision to allow new Principal Dana Nerenberg to split her time between Hardy and nearby Hyde-Addison Elementary - which resulted from an attempt to promote a sense of continuity among Georgetown schools and make Hardy a more attractive option for neighborhood families - is impractical given the demands of running a 520-student middle school.

"We are watching this school fall apart," said Mia Pettus, who has a son in the seventh grade.

Hardy still wins some praise. New parents and some holdovers say they are pleased.

"I don't regret the choice I made," said Trai Williams, whose sixth-grade daughter attended Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill last year. "I haven't had any problems."

Word arouses suspicion

Rhee triggered a race- and class-tinged controversy in fall 2009 when she told a Georgetown civic group that she wanted to "turn" the school, a choice of words that would define the ensuing debate.

Rhee said it was only a way of expressing her desire to make Hardy, which had just completed a $48 million renovation, more of an option for neighborhood families, who had been historically underrepresented at the school. But the use of the word aroused deep suspicion among the school's black parent leadership, especially after it was learned that Rhee met earlier in 2009 with parents of Key Elementary, a 70 percent white feeder school in the Palisades.

Suspicions peaked in December when Rhee announced that Pope would plan a new arts magnet middle school and that he would be replaced by Nerenberg. Students joined the fray (with help from parents) marching on the John A. Wilson Building and speaking before the D.C. Council, where one likened Rhee to Dolores Umbridge, a villainous teacher at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School.

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