THE WEAK reed that is the D.C. school board is confronted with two crucial tasks. The first is to undo its last major decision and choose a new superintendent to replace incumbent Andrew Jenkins, whom it picked only two years ago but whose contract it has now apparently decided not to renew. The second is to figure out how to keep from wasting the next school year while making that choice.
Board members will be distracted by the search for a successor, as well they should. Some will also be distracted until November by their reelection efforts. But the school system cannot be allowed to languish while all this is going on, and Mr. Jenkins and his deputies can hardly be relied upon to provide the necessary leadership. How much clout can they muster after the board has stated in no uncertain terms its disillusionment with their performance and potential?
It is up to the board, which produced the present messy situation, to provide both the energy and direction it rightly senses have been missing. To do that, it should set some specific and manageable goals. To restore morale, the school system needs a few successes. Fortunately, there is still a list of initiatives from which to choose. The list can be found in the year-old report of the Committee on Public Education, the citizens group that spent six months and $1 million in private funds to produce an impressive analysis of what must be done to improve education for the city's 81,300 students.
The board should decide which of the 19 goals set by COPE are the most crucial and deserve emphasis over the coming year. It should keep its own list short; one recent failing of administration has been to try to do too many things at once. Three possibilities are the proposal to single out one junior high school in each ward for greatly strengthened academic offerings, the trial of school-based management and a shift in the system's relationship with its teachers that would include tougher hiring standards, career ladders and longer school days.
At-large board member Eugene Kinlow, who is not seeking reelection this year, recently offered the best summation of the crucial need to avoid delay. Imagine, Mr. Kinlow said, a city block in which 10 children are enrolled in the D.C. schools. Four will drop out. Two or three more will be so poorly prepared that college is unlikely, and some of the strongest may not have been challenged to reach their full potential. "The system is in a crisis that needs to be acted upon now, not one year from now," Mr. Kinlow said. He's absolutely right.