In just a few days, the District's public schools will swing open their doors and usher students into a year that holds as many promises of creating landmark change as it does risks of dashing hopes for progress.
School officials have spent two years debating how to improve the city's classrooms. For this year, parents at many schools are being told to expect major revisions in how their children are taught -- yet they may see nothing new, for the school system's leadership is in flux and the city is broke.
"It's going to be a crucial year," said school board President Nate Bush (Ward 7). "We must start showing results on the problems we have been struggling with for a while. Our credibility is at stake."
Last week, Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, whom the school board has vowed to replace when his contract expires next June, said his goals this school year are to improve student attendance, reduce the dropout rate and establish an African-centered curriculum.
He also said that the school system, which was widely criticized last spring for bungling its enrollment count by 6,500 students, will count students by hand this fall instead of using computers.
What occurs in the academic year beginning Tuesday will play a large role in establishing momentum for the decade. Although the school system is struggling to avoid a budget deficit, several high-profile education projects appear set to begin:
The Junior Highs of Distinction. One junior high school in each of the city's eight political wards will build its curriculum and student activities upon one academic subject. Officials hope the plan will boost enrollment, student enthusiasm and grade-point averages.
School-based management. Although it has been fraught with bickering and delays, the plan is to give principals and teachers broad authority to manage their schools as they see fit. Two dozen schools will participate. If it works, more will follow.
The Comer schools. Social workers and parenting specialists will be placed in a dozen elementary schools with a large number of students whose families are impoverished. It's part of an acclaimed strategy developed by Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer. The goal: to get parents to school often and give them a stake in how the school operates.
There is a lot more at stake in schools, such as rebuilding bilingual and vocational education, but many parent and civic leaders say that as those high-profile projects go, so goes the system's pledge to improve. Some D.C. schools are excelling, but the system's vital statistics -- student attendance, dropouts and test scores -- show that many others need a shot in the arm.
Politics also may be at the root of the system's success or failure this year. Five school board seats are up for reelection, and Jenkins is on the way out. The board is expected to begin a search for his successor next month.
"We have to be vigilant to not let all the initiatives fall back just because we have an administration in transition," said Beatriz Otero, a parent leader in Adams-Morgan. "That's the scariest thing -- that we'll lose ground."
A board majority at this point seems intent on choosing someone from outside the system by December -- to prevent any newly elected board member from having a role in the vote and to block Jenkins from waging a yearlong campaign to get hired again. Relations between Jenkins and most board members have never been worse; no one expects a tranquil year so long as the standoff persists.
Some of what schools hope to accomplish will depend entirely on money, such as the new teacher contract that is being negotiated. The teachers union wants salary levels to match what teachers in Washington's suburbs are paid, but it seems there's no money for that. So the District could remain disadvantaged in hiring top-notch recruits.
Still, other plans will require little more than effective leadership. Several more school closings will be examined this fall, and the system is finishing work on how it should reshape its curriculum to emphasize the historical achievements of black Americans and African civilization.
"The system could be ready to make giant strides," said Frank Bolden, president of the principals' union. "Unfortunately, our superintendent seems to be working with a sword over his head. But we can still get some things done -- if politics or politicians don't interfere."