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Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as World Bank Invests Its Expertise in Washington Schools

World Bank Invests Its Expertise in Washington Schools

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Though it is better known for underwriting reform in struggling, far-away countries, the World Bank is now pouring time and attention into the historically low-performing school system in its own backyard.

Since last fall, the Washington-based lending institution has shared facilities, staff, and grants with its host city's 77,000-student school district. And, though dwarfed by the $10 billion the bank has lent to developing countries for education projects since 1993, the recent effort marks an unprecedented investment by the bank in the District of Columbia schools and the first of its kind in the United States.

"Far be it for me to say we live in a Third World country, but Washington has had trouble with its schools," said Daniel Ritchie, who coordinates the D.C. Community Outreach Program for the bank. "The real question is whether we have the skills and talents to bring to bear on the system."

Apparently, city schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman thinks so. She met with bank officials during her first day on the job last May to tell the bank how it could help. "The courtship was very short," she said recently. "We were committed to moving forward."

Personal Link

In 1946, the World Bank was established with seed money from numerous countries to help pay for the rebuilding of Europe after World War II. Since then, the bank has shifted its attention to developing nations, where it supports projects that aim to reduce poverty.

World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn is credited with starting the Washington outreach program in the summer of 1997. The one-of-a-kind project has three goals: improving local schools, enhancing municipal services, and revitalizing the city's economy.

The bank could find some familiar challenges in the nation's cap ital. In 1995, the city's child-poverty rate led the nation, according to a 1998 report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report also found that the city had the country's highest juvenile-crime rate. And, at 60 percent, it had the highest rate of families with children headed by a single parent.

World Bank officials budgeted $1.1 million in grants and staff time for the program this fiscal year, which started last July 1. The program is expected to last indefinitely, though the bank will approve spending on a yearly basis.

"I'm just very impressed that the World Bank is interested in working with the District [of Columbia]," said Constance B. Newman, the vice chairman of the fiscal control board that oversees Washington's city government. Ms. Newman, a former World Bank employee, added that "they want to do this in a way that will help the district, and not as a way to test their theories."

Fate, as well as proximity, played a hand in the unusual partnership.

While enrolled in a program for urban superintendents at Harvard University in 1992, Ms. Ackerman struck up a friendship with Charles Abelmann, a young doctoral student who had taught in the rural South.

When she became the superintendent last year, Mr. Abelmann was working at the World Bank as an education specialist. After hearing about her appointment on the evening news, he got in touch with Ms. Ackerman and the two started talking about ways the bank could do more for the schools. By August, he was working with Ms. Ackerman four days a week.

"I think Charlie is crucial here. We wanted someone to work on our senior staff in accountability and planning," Ms. Ackerman said in a recent interview. "I was surprised and grateful that they lent him to us for a year."

His office, like the superintendent's, is on the ninth floor of the city's newly refinished school administration building. And while his quarters are sparsely decorated, the congestion on his desk and conference table reflect how busy the tall, lean 33-year-old has become.

Almost immediately after joining the school district, Mr. Abelmann helped revive a project to create individual school profiles. The effort has posed a real challenge for a system that has a history of trouble in tracking enrollment and other data-gathering. Nonetheless, the profiles are scheduled to come out this winter.

Mr. Abelmann also answers queries from Congress, the elected school board, and a federally appointed panel that oversees the city's finances. And he helped set aside a room for strategic planning, modeled after a similar room at the World Bank, where graphs, charts, and other visual aids will help record school administrators' progress toward their goals.

One reason for Mr. Abelmann's efficiency is Ms. Ackerman's trust in him to make minor decisions on her behalf. "Each of us knows what the other is thinking," the superintendent said. "Having the chance to work together in an academic setting while looking at different education issues was really positive."

Mr. Abelmann sees himself primarily as a facilitator. "I'm helping manage projects, but I'm not the manager. I'm an institutional troubleshooter," he said. "If I do it, I don't do anybody a favor. People need to take responsibility for what needs to be done."

Technical Aid

Mr. Ritchie, the program coordinator, estimates the value of each of the handful of staff members working with the city schools at between $3,000 and $6,000 a week when salary, benefits, office space, and other factors are taken into account.

In addition to providing Mr. Abelmann's services, the bank has given the schools computer software and programming assistance, while two economists have jointly spent some 45 hours a week since August tracking last year's school expenditures.

"We want to see if resources are well-targeted to needy schools," said Varun Gauri, one of the economists. "It's something we usually do in the area of health in countries we work in, and we're applying the same process in the district."

The information will be critical, he added, if the city's schools are to give principals more say in spending decisions, as Ms. Ackerman wants.

"We'll be able to see how funds are distributed to schools," he added. "That hasn't been done in the past."

But don't expect to read much about the bank's review, which will be completed this spring. "Our work should be confidential," Mr. Abelmann said. "We're not here to destroy the place. We're here to add value, or we shouldn't be here."

Close to Home

The World Bank has also joined a program led by George Washington University, which is also located in the District of Columbia, to train teacher candidates and improve literacy at Cardozo Senior High School.

The university's graduate school of education has received $300,000 from the bank and another $175,000 from AT&T Corp. to hire reading specialists and defray tuition costs for graduate students who teach for a year at Cardozo.

"We feel we're all in this together," said Lynda Treadway, the university employee in charge of the initiative. "It's real unusual to get corporate sponsorship to feel like they're in there grinding with you."

The project is not without its skeptics. Some countries served by the World Bank have protested that its staff members should instead be working on overseas projects. But the bank, which is tax-exempt, believes the institution has an obligation to reach out to the city it calls home. At the same time, bank officials say they could learn some important lessons here.

"One of the things the World Bank does overseas is to promote partnerships," Mr. Abelmann added. "If the bank is going to talk about partnerships, we should lead by example."

Perhaps Mr. Gauri, however, offered the most important reason: "I live here, and for me, it's a great way to understand the issues and get involved. It's nice to work in my hometown."

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Page 6

Web Resources
  • The World Bank offers a resource page for students and teachers that includes curriculum materials and links to schools around the world. Read about some of the education initiatives taken on by World Bank.
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