D.C. public school teachers got to meet the new boss, Floretta D. McKenzie, yesterday at what is usually a routine meeting between the superintendent and faculty each year before school begins.
But instead of providing run-of-the-mill speeches from bureaucrats and school board members in a school auditorium, McKenzie borrowed the Carter Barron Amphitheater and wooed the troops with a rollicking, often touching musical presentation by students. The teachers loved it, bouncing in their seats and clapping at the presentation. They cheered her wildly as she rose to address them.
It was a welcome diversion for the city's 3,800 teachers, who this year faced the possibility of more layoffs and a mandatory six-day furlough -- since rescinded -- that would have cost each of them $500 in salary because of the schools' fiscal crisis. In recent months, many teachers have been highly critical of the school board and the school administration for what they considered to be insufficient efforts to protect them from the city's budget crunch.
But even those who shuffled somber-faced into the wide outdoor amphitheater, saying they expected the routine pep talk about how they would have to make do with less, found themselves wiping tears from their eyes and shouting "Right on!" during the more poignant moments of the student presentation.
The conciliatory tone of the meeting was sparked by Washington Teachers Union President William H. Simons, often at odds with recent school superintendents, who noted that this was the first time "in many years" he'd been invited to the superintendent's annual meeting with teachers.
Then, on behalf of the teachers, he presented McKenzie with a kiss on her cheek and a T-shirt printed by D.C. vocational education students that said, "Go With The Flo." McKenzie's close friends call her Flo.
The tall, heavy-set McKenzie, the picture of a matronly schoolteacher, told the teachers that her message to them was actually in the musical comedy the students performed.
The show, written by public schools' music director Grace Bradford, featured Mr. Agitate, the self-proclaimed leader of the world's "passive people." Dressed in a red jogging suit and red fedora, Mr. Agitate tried to convince a group of young people that since nothing can be done about the world's problems, they should just "shut them out."
But students wearing "I Am Somebody" T-shirts promptly informed Mr. Agitate in song and dance that they intended to "knock out apathy" because they are "getting ready for tomorrow."
When the students finished the uplifting song "I Believe in Me," and while the teachers were still on their feet cheering and clapping, McKenzie rose and told the crowd, "I believe in you.
"I have not come to give you a long speech. You have seen what we can do through these students . . . You can take a student who doesn't have anything, and maybe doesn't think much of himself, and turn that student into a real living miracle," she said to more applause.
Speaking without notes, McKenzie, the school system's fifth superintendent since 1967, told the teachers she was tired of people telling her, "Good luck -- because you'll need it."
"We are going to show that education does take place in the public schools despite all the problems they like to tell us about," she added.
"After listening to Mrs. McKenzie, I feel like I am part of a team," said Pamela Jackson, a teacher at Truesdell Elementary. "I got the feeling that maybe somebody will appreciate us now."
One high school teacher compared the McKenzie meeting to the one former superintendent Vincent E. Reed held a few years ago where he warned teachers against deviating from the method of teaching that his staff developed and all teachers were supposed to use in every school.
"She inspires you by making you feel she has confidence in you, not by threatening you," the teacher said.
The Reed administration, faced with the problem of high school students graduating without being able to read, took a back-to-basics approach to curriculum, stressing reading and math.
However, McKenzie told the teachers that reading, writing and arithmetic are only "the core of learning" and the youngsters' education must be enhanced by other subjects, such as art and music. Classes in art, music and foreign languages have been sharply cut from the school curriculum in recent years.