Wednesday, June 13, Noon ET

D.C. Schools Takeover

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David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007; 12:00 PM

Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's takeover of the D.C. Public Schools system became official, and he appointed a new chancellor, Michelle Rhee, to replace Superintendent Clifford Janey.

Washington Post city government beat writer David Nakamura was online Wednesday, June 13 at noon ET to take your questions and comments about the appointment and about what to expect in the early days of the takeover.

A transcript follows.

From today's Post: More Criticism Over Fenty's Secrecy.

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David Nakamura: Hi everyone, lots of excitement, and a fair amount of nervousness, around the new schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Happy to answer any questions about her, the process by which Mayor Fenty chose her or anything else about the schools or the administration.

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Logan Circle: Is Mayor Fenty in danger of alienating blacks with his appointments or does have enough political capital to deal with any uproar?

David Nakamura: Might as well start right off with a bang. Fenty has indeed been criticized in some quarters of the city for not hiring enough African Americans to the upper levels of his cabinet, as well as none in the top level from east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8. The mayor's new school chancellor is Korean American, his police and fire chiefs are white, as is his city administrator. Fenty generally responds that he's seeking "the best and the brightest" for each job. He has noted that one of his two deputy mayors is black, Neil Albert, as is his chief of staff, Tene Dophin.

So far, most people seem willing to give the mayor's appointees a chance and Fenty believes good performances will trump all else. So far, Police Chief Cathy Lanier has gotten off to a fairly good start.

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Washington, D.C.: With the school system in her reigns, how much, if any, of a likely shakeup in central office administration will we see from Ms. Rhee?

David Nakamura: Good question. Expect to see a very large shakeup. Rhee already has appointed Kaya Henderson, a former vice president at Rhee's New Teacher Project, as her top deputy superintendent for D.C. Rhee has told us that she will do a thorough review of the central office, but my guess is you'll see significant new blood in many of the upper level posts. Rhee said she is not scared to "hire people who know more than I do" and those who have worked with her said she will attract new talent to the system. The risk, of course, is potentially losing important institutional knowledge. As much grief as the D.C. schools central administration takes, it is also true that there are dedicated professionals there who are trying to make things better.

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Washington, D.C.: Other a than a fresh face on the scene, what do you think Fenty and gang believe that Ms. Rhee brings DCPS? Is he ego tripping?

David Nakamura: Fenty wanted a superintendent/chancellor who was familiar with the intractable problems facing urban districts, but also someone not necessarily from an urban district. He thinks longtime superintendents are too quick to leave when the going gets tough and that they are sometimes bound by the limits of their own imaginations. Fenty likes that Rhee has grown her own company and that the company worked closely with urban districts, including D.C., to reform procedures that limit the ability of principals to hire good teachers. Rhee has talked a lot about first tackling slow-moving, broken human resources systems that are the bane of most urban school districts. Whether she has the management expertise and broader skill set to tackle the many other problems here remains to be seen.

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Washington, D.C.: Why the secrecy? While Mayor Fenty may have complied with the letter of the law -- and I don't think he did -- he sure as heck didn't comply with the spirit, which was a wide-open, broad-based search with substantial outside input. I for one don't much like it.

David Nakamura: Fenty's basic defense is two-fold: 1. He has been thinking about these positions for a long time, years even since he was a council member, and has talked to many people in D.C. during that time about what the city's needs in a superintendent. 2. That if he openly discussed each candidate he wants to hire for a position, the name would be debated--and probably halted--ad nauseam before he even has a chance to hire the person. ... Of course, others would say vetting the names publicly would be more democratic and give the mayor a better perspective about what people are looking for.

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Washington, D.C.: Wow. Since hiring seemingly qualified people hasn't worked, I guess hiring someone totally unqualified might do the trick. I wish her well, especially since I have 2-year-old twins I'd like to see attend public school, but can't begin to calculate the odds against her succeeding. I hope I'm wrong, but don't think so. But I do wish her luck.

David Nakamura: Interesting comment and I think this reflects some of the, probably, wide-spread angst felt by parents. Rhee is not very well known outside academia and she's not from D.C. People, including us at the Post, are still delving into her background to find out more about her.

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Washington, D.C.: From a concerned DCPS Parent: It is unfortunate that the Mayor did not properly take the time to "RESPECTFULLY" thank and acknowledge all of the work that Dr. Janey has done to lay the educational foundation for what his administration will now attempt to implement in a "speedy" fashion. It would have made more sense to retain Dr. Janey, hold his feet to the fire, and have him continue to carry out his educational plans with oversight from the Fenty administration.

I urge Ms. Rhee, if confirmed, and all parties involved with the education of the children of D.C. to always keep in mind that the children's education is what is most important in all decisions that are made.

David Nakamura: Fenty's handling of the change in leadership has raised questions. He told Janey that he did not want the superintendent to return at 11:30 p.m. on Monday night, I think in a phone conversation. Janey's school system email account was shut down within hours and he did not report to a senior staff meeting yesterday. He has not commented publicly. Janey, for whatever presumed faults he might have had, is described by friends as a proud and deliberate man, dedicated to education, who probably does not feel he was treated the right way.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Even though I don't live in the District I do want Mayor Fenty to succeed. The entire region benefits when D.C. works. To make the city work the Mayor needs to bring in new people with different backgrounds. But as an African-American, I am offended by his repeated reference to the non-blacks he appoints as having energy, passion and enthusiasm. This creates the impression that blacks lack these traits. He seems to be particularly condescending toward older or middle-aged blacks. He is using very unfair stereotypes that will likely to get him sued for age discrimination. The Mayor should know better. People of all races and ages can and should contribute to the success of the city including its school system.

David Nakamura: The mayor does not talk a lot about race. He said it matters to him, as he is biracial himself. But when it comes to hiring, he often says he simply is looking for the best person. While he has taken criticism for not hiring enough African Americans, he also does have a deputy mayor, Victor Reinoso, who is Latino and a schools chief who is Asian. He also has appointed women to some very high positions, including police chief and attorney general (Linda Singer). That said, I think he will catch more heat for some on whether he has enough blacks in his top cabinet.

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Washington, D.C.: How much of a fight do we expect the confirmation process to bring? Can anyone stop the Mayor's choice or is she definitely in?

David Nakamura: I'd guess that unless a scandal in her background is uncovered, the council will confirm her before July 10, when it goes on recess. Expect Marion Barry in particular to grill her on her lack of superintendent experience, but about 8 or 9 council members joined Fenty in his announcement of Rhee yesterday, including Chairman Vince Gray.

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Washington, D.C.: Question: How can the income/achievement gap be closed?

Comment: You can see it coming. Every day I am fortunate, with about the same nine other parents in my son's kindergarten classroom of 25 kids, to be able to be sit from 8:40 to 9:00 everyday to do his morning work with him. Not surprisingly, all of the nine parents have either white collar, or entrepreneurial jobs where they control their schedule. Parental participation like this is a primary benefit of "affluence" that my son and others like him benefit from, and that I hope will contribute to him becoming one of the "advanced" students in DCPS testing. Yet the economic imbalances across the city from East to West hurt those kids whose parents can't make the same commitment to their kids classrooms because of demanding jobs and pressures. It's a sad Catch-22 that I see every morning.

David Nakamura: If I could answer that question, I'd be the chancellor. It's the biggest issue facing schools today. I covered Loudoun County schools and Prince George's County schools and both were dealing with the achievement gap in their own ways. No one has really figured it out.

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Washington, D.C.: Is the appointment of Mrs. Rhee a sign that DCPS desires to revise its union contract to make it easier to hire and fire teachers?

David Nakamura: Good question. Yes, watch closely this summer whether Rhee/Fenty/Council can force major changes in the teachers union contract, which is up for negotiations from what I understand. Council member David Catania is champing at the bit to tear up the contract. Rhee supposedly has a good relationship with union head George Parker, who worked with her in her role with the New Teacher Project. But that is very different than sitting across from her at the bargaining table. Rhee said that as a teacher in Baltimore 10 years ago, she was terrible her first year and then rededicated herself and worked overtime, on weekends, etc, to improve. She's not alone. A lot of teachers do that willingly, as I know from having two teachers as parents. But not every teacher will want to do that unless they are paid accordingly.

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Washington, D.C.: Janey's one major accomplishment, as reported over and over in The Post, is that he introduced new, rigorous standards (which, by the way, are largely copied from Massachusetts). I wish your reporters would talk to DCPS parents about these things to get some context. My daughter is in fifth grade, and I can assure you she learned nothing about prefixes, suffixes, Greek and Latin roots.

Of course, according to the standards, the teacher was supposed to cover these subjects as part of proper vocabulary teaching.

Contrast Janey's laissez faire attitude with actions taken by Philadelphia's successful superintendent, Paul Valla.

When Mr. Valla introduced new standards, he gave teachers guides detailing what they were to teach every week, and then tested every two weeks to determine whether the students -- or teachers-- needed help with implementation. This is what any CEO worth his or her salt would do when instituting system-wide change.

Janey's departure is LONG overdue.

David Nakamura: You're right about Janey being credited on standards, but the former Philly superintendent is "Vallas" ... Vallas is now headed to New Orleans. Fenty was said to at one point be interested in hiring Vallas. Check out Dion Haynes's story from yesterday's Post for a piece on how Philly reformed its schools.

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Anonymous: How do you figure the police chief has gotten off to a good start?

David Nakamura: This is in response to one of my earlier posts about Cathy Lanier. My sense from talking to folks around town is that while Lanier, a 39-year-old white woman who had dropped out of high school, started off with many doubters within and without the police department, she has overcome some of the initial skepticism by being accessible and talking to people and listening. She has tried to enact new strategies for community policing. Her recent flooding of officers onto the streets for overtime last weekend to tamp down the usual summer crime spike has brought a lot of arrests and a mixed reaction -- some say it was a "pr stunt." On the bigger question about whether Lanier can make the city safer, the jury is very much still out.

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Maryland: Does Chancellor Michelle Rhee have kids? If so, will she enroll them in DCPS? Mayor Fenty's kids are in private schools.

David Nakamura: Yes, she has two daughters, ages 5 and 8. She lives in Denver now, but will move here with her children and she pledged to enroll them in a D.C. traditional public school (not charter). She said that will make her work with more "urgency" that all mothers feel. Fenty's twin sons attend a private school, but he has said they will go to public school starting in a couple years when they enter fourth grade.

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The District: David,

You cover DC politics enough so please share some insight.

Deputy Mayor of Public Education: Limited experience cut and pastes the education plan. Admits to it and says he was under pressure. Not truly respected by the education world.

Deputy Mayor for Economic Development: Ran the parks. Ran edbuild but has no economic development experience and now will have control over all AWC/NCRC land and projects and the future of development in the District.

Chancellor: No real institutional leadership experience and now has to run a 55,000 student 11,000 employee school system.

This is not adding up for me. Please provide a viewpoint that might make feel better about living in the District.

David Nakamura: Good points. And this has certainly been brought up by Fenty critics. Fenty clearly wants new blood. He said he hired Victor Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, because Reinoso was a school board member and parent who knew the system and also had worked for the Federal City Council on education-related projects. He said he hired Neil Albert, the former parks and rec director and former deputy mayor for child/youth/families, as deputy mayor for economic development because Albert knew the social service side and could convince/demand that developers create affordable housing, along with major development.

But the hires also have something in common -- they are young and fit Fenty's idea that he wants people who are "energetic" and "work with urgency." Whether that can help overcome any potential lack of experience is unclear.

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Before the Fenty Supporters Get On: Message to Fenty Supporters...this is not about speaking out against Fenty. This is not about showing support. Factually, this candidate for Chancellor is not qualified. Point blank. Explain to me how a teacher with three years of teaching experience can start a non-profit to train teachers?

When I did my student teaching I had a cooperating teacher who was a third-year teacher. He helped me, but I ran circles around this guy. It wasn't until my mentor teacher of 35 years of experience came into my classroom and pulled me aside and showed me the real ropes that I discovered the art of teaching.

So when critics say Rhee is unqualified, they are not speaking out against Fenty...they are speaking from a factual standpoint. Blind faith is not a good option when you are dealing with education.

The mayor needs to go back to the drawing board on this one.

David Nakamura: Here's some interesting food for thought. Fenty supporters-- your reaction?

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Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, is there anything that Rhee or any superintendent can do to change the parents? I think she can modernize the schools, reduce the bureaucracy all she wants. But until you change the parents, all we will have is a well-run organization. That doesn't make the schools better from a learning standpoint. Bad parenting does more to impede the learning process than any other issue in my opinion.

David Nakamura: Parents are indeed a key. Fenty's school plan calls for parent resource centers and training sessions to explain to parents how they can get involved. But it's also important to note that the school system must do a better job communicating with parents, responding to their needs/concerns and making them feel welcome when they DO want to get involved.

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Former DCPS teacher: Good news - at least Rhee has school experience. Becton had none. She is reasonably qualified, and may get some of the much needed changes past the incredible mound of inertia that the DCPS administration is.

Just TRY to be a good teacher in DCPS. Just TRY it for a year or two.

David Nakamura: Some hopefulness...

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Washington, D.C.: How will the new chancellor and the new DC State Board of Education work together? Are school board members supporting her hire?

David Nakamura: The State Board, which is the new name for the school board, will have oversight of state-related functions such as standardized testing. But it will not have any say on Rhee's management, her budget or her decisions. That said, remember that several of the state board members were appointed by Fenty -- three I think -- and they will be supportive. Board Chairman Robert Bobb was at the press conference yesterday and spoke very highly of Rhee.

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Fire Bad Principals, Fire Bad Teachers, Hire New Ones: David,

I was an intern at the Maryland State Department of Education in the late 1990s when Dr. Grasmick was pressing the state board for higher teacher standards and accountability. It was also at a time when retirements were up and teacher applications were down. The result was a teacher shortage. In short, you can't have higher standards when you don't have the bodies to fill the spots.

Fast forward to 2007. Chancellor Rhee says she will fire bad principals, fire bad teachers, and hire new people. This rhetoric happens all the time. The bottom line is that DCPS can not have this mindset of fire, fire, and hire. The bodies and qualified applicants do not exist. Classrooms go months with "warm bodies" and the "dance of lemons" looks like party goers bar-hopping in Adams Morgan on Friday nights. The difference is this goes on with schools and our children.

My point is this and perhaps you can explain this to others. Where are the applicants going to come from? Oh I know, from the non-profit she just left. Wow...we have seen this before...Edbuild's 57 million dollar contract to manage school construction.

David Nakamura: Interesting points. Rhee said she started her New Teacher Project, which recruits and trains teachers to serve in urban districts, during the height of the late-90s national teacher shortage. Some of her organization's reports, however, say some of the problems urban systems claim in hiring teachers is unfounded. The report, which you can find on-line, talks about how there are new teachers who want to come on board, but they are often blocked because school systems have difficulty getting rid of bad teachers. That said, I believe Rhee's own organization played a key role in convincing Janey not to fire a bunch of uncertified teachers because he risked having a shortage.

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Alexandria, Va.: I worked with Rhee on education reform issues when I was a Senate staffer, and was always impressed with her determination, ingenuity and ability to bring together teachers, parents, students and administrators to focus on the bottom line -- giving kids the quality education they deserve. In addition to her experience working with D.C. schools (on their human resources challenges), she has been a big part of the improvements in Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools, which is also a predominantly African-American district. I am excited about the Mayor's choice and hope that others who are desperate to see progress for D.C. students will be optimistic about Rhee's appointment.

David Nakamura: Indeed, Memphis has gotten some high marks.

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Washington, D.C.: I understand the concerns that people have about Michelle Rhee's background. But the bottom line is that a superintendent does not need to have a 30 year career in the classroom. The role is more about management, leadership, strategic thinking, and execution. Michelle Rhee is not, nor should she be, the person who is going around training teachers on instruction. She needs to be able to manage the person (or team) who's doing that. It does not bother me one bit that she only taught for three years. For two of those years it sounds like she was very successful at raising her students academic standards. But more importantly, she has worked with districts on a very large scale, reforming their hiring practices, which is a management/leadership background that will serve her very well. The urgency piece that Fenty talks about is key to getting anything accomplished in a large system like D.C.

David Nakamura: another point of view...

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Capitol Hill: I realize it is only day two of the new leadership, but has Michelle Rhee laid out her initial priorities -- what she is going to keep from Janey's plan and what will be changed?

David Nakamura: Rhee has said she likes what Janey did in creating standards and curriculum. Fenty has committed to keeping the crux of Janey's Master Education Plan. Look for an initial focus on things like Human Resources computer systems, facilities upgrades, teacher hiring practices, and central office reorganization.

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Washington, D.C.: The Post's article yesterday on Fenty's pick for schools chief, Michelle Rhee, observed that she could be a "tough sell" with DCPS parents. Not this parent. Ms. Rhee gets it: "teachers are everything." Rhee may not be an attractive candidate to some school employees, however. Her organization, The New Teacher Project, has issued comprehensive reports that document precisely how bloated teachers' union contracts affect our children's education: in the annual dance of the lemons, poor performers are passed around from school to school in lieu of a fair yet viable teacher termination process; transfer rules often force principals to hire teachers they do not want; and new teachers -- whose energy and teaching skills are often far superior to the so-called veterans earning twice as much money -- are treated as expendable under existing "bumping" rights. These rules have everything to do with job protection and nothing to do with educating children. As a parent of three children enrolled in D.C. public schools, I say "bravo" to Mayor Fenty for choosing Michelle Rhee.

David Nakamura: An early Rhee fan weighs in...

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Re: Comment on Rhee's alleged inexperience: Re: Previous comment, "Explain to me how a teacher with three years of teaching experience can start a non-profit to train teachers?"

She did it and The New Teacher Project has been very effective and successful. This is part of the problem with D.C. -- folks afraid to think outside the box or give new ideas/approaches a chance. And this isn't blind faith -- she has a record of success in the districts where her organization has been involved in reforms.

David Nakamura: From what people tell me, the New Teacher Project is very well-known in education circles, along with Teach for America and a couple other big programs. Rhee started it from scratch in 1997.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any sense of Michelle Rhee's views on charter schools and magnet schools? I personally believe that the city needs to create some strong magnet schools or programs within schools to keep high performing students in the system.

Thanks.

David Nakamura: I'm afraid I don't know how Rhee feels about charters or magnets. However, I will point out that the auditing team Fenty hired last week, Alvarez & Marsal, started a number of charters in New Orleans.

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Washington, D.C.: What I find most troubling about this is that Mayor Fenty flat-out lied when he said up until right before midnight that he had not yet decided whether to replace Superintendent Janey. Clearly he had decided this many months ago. Why do you think he lied about this? It makes me wonder if we can trust anything he tells us.

David Nakamura: Fenty often said "all options are open" and that he was still considering Janey, indeed right up to this week. It does seem, however, that he had made up his mind to make a change a long time ago and that he had settled on Rhee at least a few weeks ago. As we mentioned before, he puts a great deal of importance on keeping the process under wraps lest his candidate be blocked by public debate before she's even formally announced.

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Boston: What difference does it make if the school administrator is black or not? Plenty of black officials have come and gone. Are the District residents so scared an Asian woman will succeed and make them look bad? I say let some new ethnic groups come and fall flat on their faces too, it's only fair.

David Nakamura: I think what matters to people is that the elected mayor truly considers a wide talent pool and that he make a point of finding talented deputies from all walks of life. Fenty says he's done that. But in a city/country where race has long been a dividing and polarizing issue, and where blacks were long systemically excluded from power--and in some cases still are-- it does still matter to people.

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David Nakamura: Well, we had a bunch of terrific questions. I have to get back to reporting for tomorrow and following up on the Mayor's school plans. Thanks and looking forward to the next chat down the road.

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