Hardy Middle School principal is reassigned

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:28 PM

Interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced Wednesday that she has reassigned the new principal of Hardy Middle School, acknowledging that poor decisions by the District had contributed to more than a year of turmoil at one of the city's few academically successful public middle schools.

In a take-home letter distributed to students at dismissal, Henderson said Dana Nerenberg will return full-time to Hyde-Addison Elementary, where she also serves as principal. The move rolls back one of former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's most bitterly disputed decisions, to replace veteran Hardy principal Patrick Pope in December 2009.

The move also represents the second high-profile Rhee initiative that Henderson has reversed in her three months on the job. In December, she ousted the private management firm hired by Rhee to turn around low-performing Dunbar High School.

The transition to new leadership has left the Hardy community badly fractured. Some returning parents said the school environment had deteriorated, with increases in fights, tardiness and disrespectful behavior toward staff. They also said that the less-experienced Nerenberg, 37, was spread too thin by running two schools. Her decision to shift Hardy from a "block schedule" of one-hour-plus classes to conventional 43-to-46-minute sessions diminished signature music and art offerings, some said. Other parents said privately that new out-of-boundary students, enrolled without the application and school visit required under Pope, had led to the admission of students with discipline issues that had impacted the school culture.

Incoming sixth-grade parents said the problems had been overblown, and that a cadre of parents and teachers devoted to Pope seemed determined to prove that removing him had been a mistake. Henderson, who asserted in November that Nerenberg would remain in control of both schools, said she had been placed in a virtual no-win situation.

"I want to underscore the fact that our decision for Principal Nerenberg to resume her full-time duties at Hyde is not a reflection on her leadership," Henderson wrote in the letter to parents. She added that the last year had been a difficult one for Hardy.

"We share responsibility in making mistakes which have contributed to the challenges that Hardy now faces. We also commit to correcting these mistakes," Henderson said.

Keenan Keller, co-chair of the Hardy PTA and head of a joint parent, teacher and staff advisory committee, agreed that Nerenberg had been ill-served.

"Dana Nerenberg was put in a very difficult position from the beginning," Keller said, "and with this she was treated no more fairly than Mr. Pope was treated when he was removed. We need to get back and have a discussion with the central office about how we protect the interests of students at Hardy and get back to base principles."

Officials said Wednesday that the community will be consulted on the naming of an interim replacement for Nerenberg, but ruled out Pope's return to Hardy. Keller said that was a mistake, and that the issue of future school leadership needed to be addressed "with an open mind."

Pope's removal was an attempt by Rhee to draw more neighborhood elementary school families into Hardy, which is located in Georgetown but draws a citywide student body that is predominantly African American. Pope was described by Rhee and other senior school system officials as indifferent to the idea of promoting Hardy as a neighborhood option, a claim Pope has disputed.

The move, which Hardy parents say was imposed by Rhee without prior discussion triggered an angry reaction that grew into a mayoral campaign issue last year. Some parents saw it as a blatant attempt to ease black children out of the newly renovated school, a perception triggered in part by Rhee's statement to a Georgetown civic group that she wanted to "turn" the school.

Rhee said later that she had been misunderstood.

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