It’s hard to fathom that D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson hasn’t pulled out all the stops to persuade Savoy Elementary School Principal Patrick Pope not to leave the system. He’s the kind of leader she desperately needs if she expects to achieve by 2017 her stated education reform goals, including the ramping up of academic proficiency in schools east of the Anacostia River.
I am no Pope sycophant. Most folks know I don’t often pass out praise. But I am among thousands of D.C. residents who respect Pope’s hard work, determination and unwavering commitment to the children of this city.
“I told him on the last day, I’m going to hold his leg and say, ‘Don’t go,’ ” Kenneth Robinson, a parent whose two children have attended Savoy since kindergarten, told me. “Our kids have been thriving. He really opened doors for” them.
Robinson praised Pope for the introduction of the arts and extracurricular activities, including basketball, at the Southeast school.
“All of what I have done has been to reaffirm what kids can do, with the right teachers and resources,” Pope recently told me.
He made it look easy. It wasn’t.
I first met him a decade ago, when he was suffering through the interminable renovation of Rose Hardy Middle School, where he was principal. That aggravation paled compared with the fight that later erupted when former chancellor Michelle Rhee decided to remove him from Hardy — despite the school’s notable success. Residents and elected officials protested vociferously for weeks. She refused to acquiesce.
“Sometimes being the school leader becomes a lonely position,” said Pope.
He may have lost the Hardy battle, but he didn’t surrender. In fact, during his more than 35 years in D.C. Public Schools, working first as a teacher, then as assistant principal and finally as a principal, he didn’t cut and run when the going got tough.
He helped turn around three different schools. He was in the middle of his fourth effort when, surveying the changing attitudes at DCPS, he realized that a once-perfect fit had become imperfect. The central office had begun treating seasoned and successful school leaders like assembly-line factory workers, handling widgets instead of children.
That problem hasn’t escaped the notice of some parents, including Robinson. “They have all this money, but when we ask for programs, like more sports, they say, ‘It’s not in the budget.’ Where is the money going?”
The focus isn’t on “raising healthy children,” said Pope. “Every evaluation and every judgment can’t be a quick look. We have a tendency to oversimplify how we measure what really is a successful school, [too often] limiting it to test scores.
“If that is [the] sole measure, we’re missing the mark about what kids need and what they deserve,” he added.
He’s right. Test scores should be an equal weight in a multifaceted system used to evaluate and measure the performance of teachers and administrators, including those in the central office.
At Savoy, where Pope requested to be assigned after Rhee left and Henderson became chancellor, he has been working his transformational magic. In slightly more than two years, he has brought national recognition to the school, creating a program that meshes academics with music, dance and the visual arts. His students, as Robinson said, have experienced unprecedented opportunities. They have received three invitations to the White House, winning high praise from first lady Michelle Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“I’m proud of what we have done at Savoy,” said Pope. Test scores have moved upward, and there is noticeable academic growth. The culture of the school has changed; the environment for learning has been much improved.
“Communities are like individuals. The school leader has to find the best way to get to children and to get to families,” continued Pope. “I don’t know that people sitting in cubicles are going to come up with the answer for how to move the needle.”
Pope hasn’t decided what he will do next. He said his biggest worry about the future of DCPS, and public education, is that “passion and compassion are being replaced with ambition.”
It’s all stepping stones and next rungs. Few people are making that critical long-term commitment.
I won’t be surprised if some smart public school superintendent or the board of a D.C. public charter school knocks on Pope’s door. He still has a lot of years left in him and has an impressive record of achievement, particularly for improving outcomes for minority students.
If Henderson and her data-driven crew had any sense, they would make a mad dash, chasing down Pope, promising him the autonomy and resources he needs to complete the revival of Savoy. But I’m not holding my breath. They likely will cross him out of the ledger, add the name of a new principal and keep stepping.
Who benefits when gems are lost?