In a packed auditorium in northeast Washington this week, Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, faced one of her toughest audiences yet in the six months since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty tapped her to fix the broken school system he now controls.
More than 250 angry parents— who had found out just days before that their children’s schools could be shuttered next fall—drowned out the efforts of a Rhee aide to use a PowerPoint presentation to explain why the chancellor and Mr. Fenty say they must close or consolidate two dozen schools across the 50,000-student system. With seven campuses in their part of the city, Ward 5, slated for closure, they didn’t want to hear analyses of underutilized square footage or declining enrollment.
They wanted answers directly from Ms. Rhee.
Why were seven schools in their neighborhood targeted? Why were no schools in Ward 3—a predominantly white, more affluent section of the majority-black city—on the list? Why would the chancellor move students at John Burroughs Elementary—home to a successful autism program and one of only a few schools in the city accredited by the Middle States Commission on Elementary Schools—onto a campus with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders from another school? Why weren’t parents involved in helping Ms. Rhee and the mayor decide which schools to close?
“These decisions have not been made; they are not finalized,” Ms. Rhee told the audience. “This is the beginning of the process.”
It was a statement that several parents didn’t believe was sincere, from a chancellor who has shown decisiveness and swift action to be hallmarks of her administration.
“We need bold moves here, and so far, that’s what we are seeing from her,” said Erika Landberg, a former District of Columbia school board member who is the program director for DC Voice, a school advocacy group here. “She has taken some hard positions and stuck to them.
“But we are also wondering when we are going to start hearing much more about her strategies and vision for teaching and learning and improving student achievement,” Ms. Landberg said, “because that’s ultimately what mayoral control and her appointment are all about.”
Since Mayor Fenty appointed her in June, Ms. Rhee, the 37-year old founder of the nonprofit New Teacher Project who taught for three years in inner-city Baltimore after finishing college, has pursued an aggressive agenda.
With the full backing of the mayor, who took office in January, Ms. Rhee halted the midsummer hiring of principal-candidates she thought were weak, sought millions of dollars to repair and spruce up school buildings, demanded timely delivery of textbooks and supplies, and met individually with principals to set each school’s goals for academic achievement— all within the first four months of her hiring.
In a DC Voice survey of the city’s principals this fall, Ms. Rhee earned high marks for her responsiveness to their concerns and the attention and resources that she and Mayor Fenty gave to building repairs and improvements.
“Principal after principal told us that they can e-mail her directly, and that she gets back to them,” Ms. Landberg said of the survey results. “The hands-on communication was impressive.”
More recently, Ms. Rhee has been weighing options for “restructuring” some of Washington’s worst-performing schools—including enlisting charter school management organizations to run them—and hammering out a plan for school closings, which seeks to redirect money from under-enrolled schools to new academic initiatives, such as gifted-and-talented programs.
“We want to provide comprehensive school programs across the entire city,” with music, art, and physical education courses, Ms. Rhee told parents at the meeting this week on school closings. “We don’t have any gifted-and-talented programs here. What that says to me is that in a district that is mostly minority and low-income, we have been settling for lower expectations.”
But whether Ms. Rhee will be able to forge ahead unchallenged with a plan to boost achievement in the high-poverty school district is an open question.
This week, the District of Columbia Council is slated to vote on legislation that would reclassify more than 700 nonunion employees in the district’s central office as “at will” workers. That would give Ms. Rhee the authority to fire workers if she judged them incompetent.
When the chancellor and Mayor Fenty announced that plan in October, Ms. Rhee also said she would seek similar authority to remove ineffective teachers. She complained that many central-office employees could not describe to her what their job duties were.
Local labor leaders called the proposal a threat to all school district employees, whether union members or not, and have prepared an alternative for the council to consider.
“How giving the chancellor the power to fire a secretary or someone who works in the mailroom improves student achievement is beyond me,” said Rick Powell, the political and legislative director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, which includes several unions with members in the school district’s office.
“Is that grounds to lose your job?” he said of employees’ reported confusion about their duties. “If somebody doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, then you train them.”
Arlene C. Ackerman, a professor of educational leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, who served as the District of Columbia’s superintendent from 1998 to 2000 and more recently was schools chief in San Francisco, cautioned that Ms. Rhee’s aggressive stance toward central-office employees could backfire.
“One of the mistakes that those of us who’ve done this job before have made is to think that when a school system is broken, then the people who work in the system are equally broken,” she said.
When Ms. Ackerman became superintendent here, one of her first moves was to fire the entire human-resources staff after hearing stories about paychecks being cut for deceased employees and teachers who were never paid correctly or on time.
“Then,” she said, “six months later, with an all-new staff, all the way down to the secretaries, the HR system was still broken.”
When Ms. Rhee is ready to move her ideas into the implementation phase, Ms. Ackerman said, she will need “to have enough people who believe in her good ideas. If you come in and are disrespectful to everyone who could possibly support you, then you will fail.”
Ms. Rhee was not available for comment for this story, despite repeated requests. But Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for the chancellor, said Ms. Rhee does not intend to conduct a wholesale firing of central-office employees.
“She just wants to be able to have the same authority that most CEOs and other government managers have to move ineffective employees out of positions,” she said.
Ms. Rhee has promised to do lots of listening, especially in the coming weeks as her plans on shuttering schools proceed. “We have nine community meetings on this for the purpose of hearing what the community has to say and weighing all of the concerns that they bring to us,” Ms. Hobson said. “Clearly, there are probably going to be areas in the plan that need to be tweaked.”
One local PTA president, Terri Anomnachi, whose child attends an elementary school that has been targeted for closure, wonders how sincere the pledge to listen will prove to be.
“I’ve been supportive of what she has done up to this point,” Ms. Anomnachi said of the chancellor, “but how can you decide which schools to close and that 4- and 5-year-old children will attend schools with 13-year-olds without talking to parents first?”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.