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Can Mayor Gray make the grade on D.C. school reform?

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Thursday, January 6, 2011; 8:00 PM

I admit it: I'm among those who have had very serious doubts about Vincent Gray as D.C. mayor.

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As a former urban teacher, I understand how fragile the District's progress on education reform still is. I know that changing the culture of a single school takes tremendous work. For instance, in an effort to inspire the elementary students in my Brooklyn school to prioritize college, we consciously praised "college behavior," warned students whose behavior was "taking them away from college," took them (kindergartners and up) to college campuses and sang multiple songs about college each day. That may seem excessive, but that's the sort of effort that it takes. I can only imagine how challenging and painful it is to change the expectations of an entire school system.

So while my wife and I are proud District residents, we've hesitated over buying property in the city. When we have kids, and when those kids are ready for their first day of kindergarten, we need to be confident that the local public schools will give them their best chance to get "the knowledge to go to college." We're hoping for proof that the District's schools are on a stable upward path.

Listening to Gray during his campaign, I wasn't confident that he'd be able to lead - and sustain - the District's progress. So far, though, the sky hasn't fallen on District public schools. And Gray's initial appointments offer reason to be optimistic.

Keeping former deputy schools chancellor Kaya Henderson on as the interim chancellor is a good sign. There's no doubt that she has the necessary experience. Before coming to the District, Henderson was a teacher, a vice president at the New Teacher Project and an executive at Teach for America. Her classroom background helps her understand the needs and concerns of teachers, while her experience as an executive helps her balance competing claims from parents and administrators.

True to Gray's style, Henderson has cultivated working relationships with all of the District's education stakeholders. And because she worked with former mayor Adrian Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, she has an insider's knowledge of the District's past and its current situation. She's ready to help build its future. She deserves a permanent position. For those of us who cheered Fenty's education reforms, dropping the "interim" label would send a strong message that Gray is serious about continuing to improve the District's schools.

Hosanna Mahaley, the new state superintendent, and De Shawn Wright, the new deputy mayor for education, are also highly qualified picks. A former middle school math teacher and PTA president, Mahaley was Arne Duncan's chief of staff when the now-U.S. education secretary was the head of Chicago schools, and she worked to close under-performing schools there. Wright, another former teacher, was an administrator in the New York City Department of Education, served as Newark Mayor Cory Booker's chief policy adviser and helped to found the Newark Charter School Fund. The fact that they have credentials like Henderson's is encouraging. Their common backgrounds will help them to work together toward continued progress in the District's schools.

So I'm starting to believe that Gray really meant it during his campaign when he stressed that he would continue the best of the Fenty administration's efforts and keep the District on the educational trajectory that new D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown recently called "the envy of this country."

Of course, it's too early to say for sure. Gray's been in office for less than a week. The real fights, where his promises will be most tested, are ahead. Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan Saunders, who was elected on the strength of a campaign promising to roll back the Fenty-Rhee reforms, has vowed to use confrontation whenever necessary. He's said he wants to scrap the current teacher accountability system despite the fact that it's beyond collective bargaining and losing it could cost the District $75 million in Race to the Top funding. It's difficult to collaborate with those who are determined to fight.

Is Gray ready to stand up to the teachers union if Saunders follows through on these threats? Is Gray prepared to keep a firm hand on the reins of progress if (really, when) budget constraints make education cuts and teacher layoffs necessary? Is he prepared to keep putting students first?

If the answer to these questions is "yes," then my wife and I will start house hunting.

Conor Williams won The Post's 2010 America's Next Great Pundit contest. His e-mail address is punditconor@gmail.com.


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