One year after unveiling a blueprint for radical changes in the District's schools, a panel of 64 civic leaders is uncertain of what its work has wrought. A path to landmark reform or more hot air?
The panel, known as the D.C. Committee on Public Education, boasts of luring million-dollar donations to the city's classrooms, and of steps to revamp how the 81,300 students are taught.
Yet panel members, including top business, religious and education leaders, say they are apprehensive about the school system's commitment to changes. Key projects, such as giving principals and parents more power or increasing classwork, are being delayed.
The panel is also worried that the D.C. school board's vote last week to find a replacement for Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins -- while he spends a year as a lame duck -- may cause more disruptions.
"There has been some progress, but I'm not satisfied with the speed in which the system is pursuing change," said Terence C. Golden, co-chairman of the civic panel. "So much more could be happening."
Golden and other panel members cite the schools administration, which Jenkins leads, as the biggest obstacle to overhauling the District's 175 schools. Jenkins's team, they contend, at times seems more interested in protecting its turf than in having schools improve.
Nevertheless, the panel's clout is growing.
Along with raising money for schools, it is helping implement some innovations, and it no doubt will help find Jenkins's replacement. The panel was summoned to conduct a six-month study, but it is positioned now as a permanent, influential schools watchdog.
The latest of many examples of this new role came in May, when most school board members were resisting a $1 million education grant from the tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris.
The civic panel argued that forsaking the $1 million would jeopardize other grants, and the board relented.
The panel's report, which was completed in June 1989, calls for longer class days, longer school years, higher pay for principals and teachers, and a redesign of the way math and science are taught.
Other proposals include expanding programs for preschoolers, increasing graduation requirements, hastening repairs, closing schools with low enrollment, and cutting scores of management jobs.
School officials are moving swiftly on some issues: Seven schools with low enrollment have been closed, a decision ducked in the past.
A new teacher contract is being negotiated and on the table is more class time. With $500,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation, 12 elementary schools are using an improvement model, led by Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer.
In addition, one junior high school in each of the city's political wards is being reshaped into a "School of Distinction" that stresses one academic subject. The city's junior highs are where most D.C. dropouts quit school.
"We've seen more momentum in the last year in schools than there has been in eight years," said school board President Nate Bush (Ward 7). "We've introduced a lot. The real need now is for more order with all of these ideas."
The first challenge for the board is resolving its battle with Jenkins. A week ago, the board voted not to renew his contract when it expires next June. But they agreed to retain him while they find a successor.
A board majority has expressed doubt for months about Jenkins's ability to lead the charge for changes. Members say Jenkins often moves from one idea to the next without completing tasks. For example, "school-based management," which would give principals, parents and teachers more power, is stalled. No one can agree who should be on the councils set up to manage schools.
Jenkins sent six dozen officials back to jobs in schools, but that saved no money and seems to have had little effect. There have not been layoffs or early retirements, though the panel said a large part of the half-billion-dollar schools budget is spent paying managers who don't have much to do. Plans to give students more hands-on experience in science classes and to bring about more critical thinking in math classes remain on the drawing board.
Another setback to changes, civic leaders and board members said, has been the dispute over school enrollment. In February, Mayor Marion Barry agreed to give the schools a $100 million budget increase to help finance panel plans. But after budget hearings with the D.C. Council, school officials said they had bungled the enrollment count, overestimating by about 6,500 students.
Council members angrily cut the schools budget request, jeopardizing teacher pay raises and shelving plans to renovate classrooms, upgrade equipment and expand early childhood education.
"It looked like a lot might be achieved in the first year, then the school system shot itself in the foot," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, director of Parents United, a schools advocacy group.
Jenkins rejects all of the criticisms. He said he's moving on three-fourths of the panel's ideas and intends to do more, such as trimming 150 temporary and vacant school system jobs by summer's end. "I'm proud of the work we've done," he said. "We're well on our way to making vast improvements."
Since last summer, the civic panel's report has been acclaimed by city officials as the schools' best chance in a generation to improve.
For years, school officials have failed to correct their most serious problems, such as dropouts (four of every 10 D.C. high school students quit before graduation), dilapidated buildings, and hiring the highest-quality teachers.
The panel's study of D.C. schools has cost about $1 million -- all in private contributions. Now members are fishing for more private aid to schools, asking the D.C. Council and Congress to increase the schools budget, and nudging Jenkins to move faster.
"It has been a good year, not an excellent year," said Carmen E. Turner, general manager of Metro, who shares leadership of the panel with Golden. "Some areas needing change are so institutional it will take longer than we thought."
Panel leaders predict they need five years to create widespread change, but say a lot depends on how generous the city and federal governments are, and how much savvy school leaders show.
Education specialists nationally said school reform movements have been slowed in many cities by officials who resent having outsiders tell them how to do their jobs. That problem has been seen between the D.C. school board and the civic panel. Another habit, specialists said, is for school leaders to attach fancy new labels to old policies, then pretend those are reforms.
"There is a tendency to get caught up in buzzwords," said Sonia Hernandez, a senior associate with the National Center on Education and the Economy, which monitors education reform. "It doesn't help children much."
Turner said the panel here will prevent its agenda from being ignored by remaining vigilant for the entire decade. "We're at the tip of the iceberg," she said. "The real payoff is still years down the road."
The D.C. Committee on Public Education, a panel of 64 civic leaders, recommended several dozen changes for city schools last summer. Here's a sample of where its proposals stand one year later: WHAT'S MOVING
"Comer schools" -- A model program that gives parents and teachers a large stake in their school. Led by Yale child psychiatrist James P. Comer, it begins this fall in a dozen schools. The Rockefeller Foundation and Howard University will assist.
"Schools of Distinction" -- A junior high school in each of the city's eight political wards will stress one academic subject, or "magnet" program.
Early childhood education -- Teachers have been directed to provide more hands-on learning styles, fewer rote drills in math and reading.
High schools -- Three high schools to receive several hundred thousand dollars each to pursue innovation in classes. RJR Nabisco is the sponsor.
School closings -- Seven schools with low enrollment will close during the next three years, saving about $3 million. More closings planned.
The bureaucracy -- Six dozen officials sent back to work in schools. About 150 temporary and vacant jobs targeted for elimination.
Curriculum -- A plan to have classes better reflect achievements and history of blacks and other minorities is said to be near completion. WHAT'S NOT
"School-based management" -- There's dispute over who should be on the councils that will direct a school's staffing, spending and instruction.
Layoffs or early retirements to cut bureaucracy size -- None.
More class time, longer school years -- No deals with unions yet.
Raise teacher pay, offer career ladders -- Negotiations have just begun.
Toughen hiring standards for teachers -- No new policies.
Increase graduation requirements -- No discussion.
Require art, music, language courses -- No money for it, officials say.
Revamp math and science classes -- No new policies.
Create a high school honors program -- No discussion.
Enroll 3-year-olds in preschool -- No new policies.
Incentive pay for staffs at effective schools -- No discussion.
Hire adults from other professions who want to teach -- No discussion.