More than 3,000 teachers, coaches, paraprofessionals and other educators gathered as part of a two-day "Welcome Back" event, a feel-good gathering that mixed professional seminars with pep cheers just days before the 55,000-student school system opens Monday.Having watched the DC schools for a number of years, I can attest to the uniqueness of this event. I don't recall any superintendent ever standing before a crowd of school employees and open themselves up to questions such as Rhee did yesterday. The move is bold and appears to be something of a hallmark of Rhee's short tenure.
Rhee, who was named chancellor in June, decided she wanted to hold a large-scale gathering for the school system's educators and sought space at the convention center. Remarks from national and local leaders and training seminars continue today.
The rental was reduced by half, to $50,000, because the school system is a city agency, said convention center spokeswoman Lana Ostrander. Officials said fees for the nationally known workshop leaders were paid by the U.S. Department of Education. The Washington Teachers' Union co-sponsored the event and gave out tote bags.
The educators filled hundreds of rows inside Hall E, walking two and three abreast in the aisles, some wearing matching T-shirts with the names of their schools, some carrying pompoms.
Jason Kamras, a D.C. math teacher and a former National Teacher of the Year, warmed up the crowd with a call and response, asking different groups to stand up. "Can I hear from my art teachers?" he said. For several minutes, a determined group of individuals shouted, "librarians!" until Kamras gave them their due.
Then came the speeches. Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, spoke of his hopes for the education of his son, Roberto, who starts at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School next week, and the impression it made on him to watch his mother, a public school teacher, work long hours into the night and on weekends to help students.
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) recalled the solid education he received at Dunbar Senior High School and called the educators in the crowd "architects of change."
As the final speaker, Rhee said her top priority was to reform the downtown school headquarters operation so that it better serves schools and families.
Noting her lack of experience as a school system leader, Rhee said, "I'm asking you to take a leap of faith with me."
She then took questions from the crowd on such issues as the physical conditions of buildings and her plans to restore art and music and extracurricular programs.
Katherine Buchholz, head of of the English department at Hart Middle School, asked what would be done to encourage teachers to voice their concerns without fear of retribution. Rhee pledged to set an open communications policy and to have her staff members visit schools to see if it is being practiced.
Afterward, Buchholz said it was refreshing to be able to ask a question of Rhee directly. "Just the fact that she's talking to us shows there's a difference," she said.
With the DC schools opening on Monday, the system has had its almost annual snafus, including lacking textbooks or textbooks sent to the wrong school, not having enough teachers hired, and a great deal of transition amount the principals. But some hopeful signs are present. As of last week, the DC schools needed to hire just 62 new teachers, a far cry from the hundreds of past years. With some programmatic and policy changes, I hope Rhee won't have a similar problem next year.
Of course, with a new chancellor, something of a wait and see attitude and a healthy dose to skepticism are necessary. But in simply holding the event, Michelle Rhee has signaled a significant change in the DC schools in tone if not yet in substance.