A Rhee of hope for D.C. schools?


New backpack? Check. New clothes? Check. New textbooks? Check, but barely. By the time the District’s public schools officially opened for the first day of school on Monday, they had received 99 percent of the textbooks and other educational materials that principals had requested, via emergency delivery by the police and fire departments. Merely having the necessary books might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but for a school system as bad as D.C.’s, it qualifies as a victory. In order for Mayor Adrian Fenty’s much-publicized school takeover to actually be a success, though, completed textbook orders must be the rule, rather than an exception.

While Fenty and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee have averted one crisis, they still face the underlying issues that plague the school system. Poor testing scores are endemic; only 38.2 percent of elementary school students tested proficient in reading in 2006-2007, and a mere 30.5 percent did so in math. The central office is an inefficient bureaucracy—just ask Allison Murtha, a special education teacher who has yet to receive her $2000 signing bonus from 2005, though not for lack of trying. She’s called the DCPS central office, written letters and contacted the administration through her teachers’ union representative, all to no avail.

“You get a lot of ‘That’s not my job’ or being connected to another office,” Murtha said. “It’s a disconnect between the central office and what’s happening in the schools.” Participants at an Education Town Hall held by Fenty and Rhee last night at Shaw Junior High School echoed Murtha’s concerns. They also voiced complaints about the state of the school buildings, the quality of school lunches and youth violence in and around schools.

Fortunately, it looks like Rhee may be up to the job of saving the District’s schools. She’s certainly qualified, having begun her career as an elementary school teacher in Baltimore and having run The New Teacher Project, an educational reform organization she founded that has helped over 2 million children nationwide. Since becoming chancellor, Rhee has announced plans to cut down the bloated central office, though she stressed that she anticipated meeting resistance, at least from the bureaucrats whose jobs she would be eliminating.

“Every community forum I’ve been to like this, it’s been the amen chorus when I talk about overhauling the central office,” she said at the Town Hall meeting on Wednesday.

To combat poor test scores, Rhee plans to have principals from low-scoring schools learn from principals in higher-performing schools. She also said that the school lunch program would be improved, even admitting that she herself wouldn’t eat what’s currently served.

Rhee is approaching her new position with an energy and vitality desperately needed by a school system long bogged down by its own inadequacy. In the upcoming weeks, her office will be announcing the benchmarks they hope to achieve this year, which will hopefully bring accountability to the D.C. school system. It’s too early to tell if any of Rhee’s efforts will ultimately bring about the necessary improvements in the District’s schools, but there is reason to be optimistic. The changes Rhee hopes to implement have long been promised and are long overdue.

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