Rhee Fires Shepherd Principal, Raising Questions About Vetting

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008; Page B01

Shepherd Elementary in upper Northwest is a bright spot in a D.C. school system with all too few. It has good test scores, a diverse student body and an active parent community.

What it has lacked has been continuity at the top. The school has had four principals in the past year -- one who resigned, followed by three interim heads. In the spring, when Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee sent a community screening committee five candidates to interview for the post, the group recommended two highly regarded D.C. assistant principals.

Rhee instead assigned the two assistant principals to other schools and selected Galeet BenZion, 39, whose last job was a turbulent two-year stint at a small cooperative preschool on Capitol Hill, where she was placed on probation before leaving in May, the school's former board president said.

On Friday, less than two months into the academic year, Rhee fired BenZion. Her departure raises questions about the school system's vetting process, which was part of Rhee's aggressive effort to upgrade a principal corps she considers integral to her reform effort. In the spring, she fired 24 school heads and launched what she described as a national campaign to recruit top-flight principals.

Citing personnel and privacy laws, school officials would not offer reasons for BenZion's dismissal. In an interview yesterday, Rhee said BenZion's hiring was "the wrong call" but did not elaborate.

BenZion, who has a doctorate in education from American University, said in an interview that Rhee, who in public meetings invites parents to contact her directly, dismissed her because she couldn't "control" Shepherd parents. Some had been complaining to the central office about teacher shortages and unfulfilled promises for an International Baccalaureate program at the school.

"Any kind of communication to her was considered a gauge of my leadership," she said.

Shepherd parents appear split on the merits of BenZion's brief tenure. Some credit her with fighting aggressively for resources the school needed. But even supporters say she struggled as a newcomer to the D.C. school system. In an e-mail to Rhee this month before the firing, Shepherd's business manager, June Confer, said the Israeli-born BenZion was "still learning the culture of DCPS, the uniqueness of Shepherd ES and the character of the African American world."

But parents speak with one frustrated voice about the selection process that landed BenZion at Shepherd and her firing after seven weeks, a decision that has roiled the successful school.

"DCPS is screwed up from the top of its head to the soles of its feet," Shepherd parent Jason Keene wrote on the school community's e-mail group, which was lit up this week by the firing. Keene said that he and other Shepherd parents who had other academic options for their children but wanted to make a go of it in D.C. public schools are looking at other possibilities.

Over the summer, Rhee filled 46 principal vacancies in the 120-school system, including the openings created by her decision to fire some school heads. An Aug. 13 announcement by her office described a "rigorous hiring process that included an extensive screening and four interviews, one of which was conducted personally by Chancellor Rhee."

Many of Rhee's hires have drawn good reviews. But BenZion's selection raises questions about the due diligence Rhee and her staff brought to the hiring process. BenZion's two years at the Hill Preschool ended in turmoil, parents and board members said. Chander Jayaraman, who served as board president until August, said he was not contacted by D.C. schools when BenZion applied for a principal's job.

"I did not get a call," he said. "I would think I would have. I kind of expected something like that." School officials declined to discuss who was contacted to vet BenZion.

Jayaraman said BenZion was placed on probation in December for a series of problems, including conflicts with the staff, disarray in classrooms and a lack of responsiveness to parent concerns.

"She may have been overwhelmed," Jayaraman said. When the board decided not to renew her contract in the spring, she left her position several weeks before school ended.

Before she was hired for Shepherd Elementary, BenZion said that in addition to the school committee she was interviewed by Billy Kearney, the system's director of principal recruitment; John Davis, an instructional superintendent; and another official whose name she said she could not recall.

BenZion said her interview with Rhee lasted about five minutes. BenZion said it consisted of Rhee "attacking me right and left and questioning whether I had the skills to work with this particular population," meaning a school that was about 60 percent black, 30 percent white and 10 percent Hispanic.

Rhee, who is scheduled to meet with Shepherd parents at the school tonight, has named administrator Jamie Miles as interim principal.

But many parents want an explanation from Rhee, personnel laws not withstanding. BenZion sent an e-mail to Rhee yesterday authorizing her to discuss her firing with several people in the Shepherd community, including PTA President Earl Yates and Sekou Biddle, a member of the state school board and a Shepherd parent.

Mario Brossard, a Shepherd parent who served on the screening committee, said Rhee needs to bring some transparency to the process.

"We put forth two other candidates," he said. "Michelle Rhee decided she knew something we didn't. Now, in two months, she's replacing her. It's very frustrating."

Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.

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