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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.

Nearly a year later, Dana Humphries, who has sixth- and eighth-grade sons, said the students clearly miss the 60-year-old Pope, a popular figure who supporters say brought to the job a sense of fun and a firm hand with both students and parents.

"But I don't see a whole lot of difference," said Humphries, who lives in Southeast Washington. "He was closer to the kids than Dana, but she's trying."

The clouded status of Pope's new assignment remains a sore point. Budget constraints and uncertainty about the magnet school's academic design have pushed the project back at least a year and probably longer. It leaves Pope in the school system's central office, planning a new school that may not come to pass in the foreseeable future. He declined to comment for this story.

Some parent leaders have not abandoned their campaign to have Pope reinstated. Many supported the campaign of Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), who took up their cause and criticized Rhee's decision to replace Pope as unwarranted meddling with a school that was working. At a March hearing, Gray said, "a mistake has been made."

"I've encouraged people at the highest levels to rethink this," said Keenan Keller, head of the parent-teacher leadership panel at Hardy.

"I think a lot of Dana Nerenberg, but they are putting a great burden on her," Keller said, referring to her dual principalship.

Gray said Friday that he and interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson had discussed the Hardy situation, including Nerenberg's dual principalships, on a couple of occasions. But he said he had not asked her to take any specific course of action.

"I don't want to be chancellor of the schools," Gray said. "Kaya knows I'm there to be supportive, and she will make the right decisions when it comes to the students of Hardy."

Henderson said that she was looking into the issues raised by Hardy parents and staff but that Pope's return is not on the table.

"Mayor-elect Gray has not asked me to consider returning Patrick Pope to Hardy," Henderson said, adding that she expected Nerenberg to continue in both posts.

'Tricky' but manageable

On a visit to Hardy one afternoon last week, a classroom of children playing flutes filled the air with music. In the auditorium, a master class in hip-hop dance was underway.

"We're trying to build Hardy into the top-performing middle school in the city," said Nerenberg, 37, plucking trash from the floors as she walked the building. Laserlike in her intensity, she speaks in educational idioms used by Rhee, talking about "creating excellent opportunities every day for our students to learn."

Nerenberg said the block schedule was abandoned because some students were receiving fewer minutes per week of instruction than others in core subjects such as math and English. Even so, she said, more instrumental music classes have been added.

Nevertheless, the issue will be revisited by a parent-teacher task force early next year with an eye toward changes in 2011. She also acknowledged that discipline needs to be tightened but says that her reduced presence at Hardy - she spends two days a week at Hyde-Addison - is "tricky" but manageable.

"Last spring was a real challenge for our kids," she said, referring to the uproar around Pope's departure

Hardy has always been something of an outlier in the District, a majority-minority school in the middle of Georgetown. It was shaped by Pope, who created the arts and music program - requiring every sixth-grader to begin learning an instrument - and an application process that helped promote parental buy-in to the uniform policy and other elements of school culture.

Although the school did not make adequate yearly progress last year under the No Child Left Behind law, more than 70 percent of its students tested proficiently in reading and math, placing it far ahead of most of the city's public middle schools.

But over the years, Pope, a flinty no-nonsense administrator with a low tolerance for parents he considered overly intrusive, developed a reputation described by Hardy teachers as "not Georgetown friendly."

Student sentiment remains raw, although the controversy has cooled. This week, Miranda Woods, a seventh-grader, told school administrators at the chancellor's "office hours" that the school was a pale version of its former self.

"Students rebel now," Miranda told WAMU (88.5 FM). "They get into fights. A lot of people write on walls in the bathroom. They get bad grades and don't care about it. Last year, Mr. Pope wouldn't have tolerated it."

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