Urban Education

By Catherine Gewertz — October 01, 2004 1 min read

—Catherine Gewertz

Everyone wants the first day of school to go smoothly, but leaders of the District of Columbia schools, in particular, really needed it to go well.

Washington’s school system is still smarting from political battles over its chain of command and whether the mayor should have more control of the schools. The city endured multiple rejections before finally finding a new superintendent.

So it didn’t help when the first day of school, on Wednesday, Sept. 1, found hundreds of students hanging around in front of Eastern High School, unable to begin their studies because no one had produced their class schedules.

Within hours, interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice had sent the students home, fired the principal and two central-office employees, and appointed a veteran principal and administrator as interim principal.

By the second day, with the story on the front page of The Washington Post, students returned to Eastern, but had to spend the day in homeroom because schedules still were not finished.

It wasn’t until midday on Sept. 3, the third day of school, that most schedules were distributed. And that took a round-the-clock blitz by school- and district-level employees laboring on aged computer software.

Eastern High stayed open Saturday and Labor Day to allow students to pick up the last of the schedules.

By Sept. 7, district officials were relieved to report that things seemed to be operating normally for the school’s 900-plus students.

“It was a great day in the life of the D.C. public schools, which it should have been last week,” spokeswoman Lucy Young said last week. “This shouldn’t have happened. And I can almost guarantee you it won’t happen again.”

Activists lamented the situation at Eastern, saying it reflected the depth of the challenges that the 64,000-student district faces as it tries to improve its operations. Clifford B. Janey, the incoming superintendent, will be the next to tackle the dysfunction.

“I hope Dr. Janey is going to put an end to that,” said Iris Toyer, the chairwoman of the advocacy group Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, “but I don’t think it’s that simple.”