After five months on the job, D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie says she is finding it difficult to get school officials to work as a team and speak up about the problems they see. She says she also is upset about the time it takes to get rid of incompetent personnel and "pockets" of discontent she sees among teachers.
But McKenzie, in a wide-ranging luncheon interview yesterday with Washington Post editors and reporters, says she also has seen some bright spots during her brief tenure. There is improved discipline in the schools, she said, and a greater willingness among parents to get involved in schools.
"I feel very comfortable walking through the halls of the high schools," she said, noting that some of them have been scenes of shootings, knifings and rapes. In one high school, she said, a student recently came up to her, kissed her on the cheek and said, "'I like what you're doing.' Isn't that something?"
Because of the school system's past and recurring problems, McKenzie, the fourth superintendent in the last six years, acknowledged that "I have to work at being enthusiastic. People within the system suffer from so much negativism. It's a gigantic task to pull them so that they can make a maximum contribution."
McKenzie, whose own contract with the D.C. School Board calls for yearly evaluations of her job performance, said she is bringing in corporate officials to talk with school employes about the techniques of management, team-building and accountability that they use and that may be applicable in D.C. schools.
"We have a system where most people have worked in only this system," she said. "If you haven't seen other things, you can't dream, your vision is limited. I have encouraged my people to visit other school systems, see what they're doing. And I have invited superintendents from other jurisdictions to come here."
McKenzie has made what many school officials feel is an unprecedented effort to seek out the views of teachers. But much of what she hears is complaints. When she played principal for a day at Ross Elementary School, teachers there complained about having to "share" their principal with another school, since Ross is too small to have a full-time principal.
At a meeting at Francis Junior High School recently, teachers from across the city complained about the amount of paperwork they have to do evaluating students in connection with the new promotions program for elementary students.
McKenzie spoke yesterday in strong terms about her expectations for teachers.
"I am going to ask administrators to vigorously evaluate staff . . . . I'm not running a social welfare agency. Though the job may be difficult, people are going to have to measure up," she said.
She said she is particularly disheartened by the length of time -- sometimes as long as two years -- that it takes to fire incompetent teachers and principals. She added that several principals and assistant principals are now enrolled in an in-house Administrative Leadership Training Academy which will deal, in part, with the process by which principals can evaluate teachers.
She said in one recent case in which a principal recommended terminating a teacher, "I found the alleged incidents involving the teacher so inappropriate that I told the principal to go to the school system's lawyer and find out if we could fire immediately."
She said that because of recent teacher layoffs, only the more experienced teachers -- those with at least 10 to 15 years' experience -- remain in the school system. But because of many new programs, she said, the school system must "get heavily into retraining" of its teaching staff.
On another matter, the 45-year-old McKenzie said the behavior of the city school board is somewhat of a concern to her. "I think board members model their behavior after other board members," she said in an oblique reference to the infighting and personal animosity which has punctuated the board's meetings.
Her predecessor as superintendent, Vincent E. Reed, resigned over repeated conflicts with some board members. McKenzie has so far enjoyed good relations with the board and said she is "cautiously optimistic" about her future dealings with the 11-member panel.
Three new members will take office next month. Although at-large member Frank Shaffer-Corona, whose antics often disrupted the board's work, was defeated in last month's election, the other at-large member, Barbara Lett Simmons, and R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8) won reelection. All three had worked to block McKenzie's appointment, although Simmons eventually voted for McKenzie.
McKenzie also said one of her major aims is to increase parent involvement in the schools. Toward that end, she said she has been attending Parent-Teacher Association meetings every week and has asked principals to "develop ways to make parents feel more comfortable in the schools."