Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Michelle Rhee's Next Big Challenge

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has tackled textbook distribution, and is taking on the personnel system. But perhaps Rhee's biggest challenge will be overcoming the public perception of DC Schools--among the city's own residents. In an op-ed over the weekend, David Nicholson, a former DC resident, explains why he moved.
When a high school friend told me several years ago that he and his wife were leaving Washington's Mount Pleasant neighborhood for Montgomery County, I snickered and murmured something about white flight. Progressives who traveled regularly to Cuba and Brazil, they wanted better schools for their children. I saw their decision as one more example of liberal hypocrisy.

I was childless then, but I have a 6-year-old now. And I know better. So to all the friends -- most but not all of them white -- whom I've chastised over the years for abandoning the District once their children reached school age:

I'm sorry. You were right. I was wrong.

After nearly 20 years in the city's Takoma neighborhood, the last six in a century-old house that my wife and I thought we'd grow old in, we have forsaken the city for the suburbs.

Given recent optimistic news about the city's schools, this may seem the equivalent of buying high and selling low. And though I don't know new D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, what I know of Mayor Adrian Fenty and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso (a former neighbor) tells me that real change will come, sooner or later, to D.C. public schools.

The thing is, with a second-grader who has already read the first two Harry Potter books, I can't wait the four or five years it will take to begin to undo decades of neglect and mismanagement of District schools, much less the additional time needed to create programs for the gifted and talented.
While the city does have roughly 55,000 students in the system, the fact of the matter is that many parents, people who may have lived in DC for years or even all their lives, still leave the city when their kids hit school, often when they realize, like Nicholson, that the DC schools cannot really help their exceptional child.

That leaves Rhee and her patron, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) between a rock and a hard place. To retain the very quality students, parents and families the DC schools need to get back on track, they need to make radical changes now. But such changes now are impossible to make without the input and dedication of those same people. It is a vicious chicken-egg scenario that could doom the DC schools recovery to a slow start.

But my advice to Rhee and Fenty is to ignore the "student age flight" that has been occurring and focus on your plan. The demand for a quick fix inthe classroom is what has doomed previous superintendants. While the public will not and should not wait for ever for results, Rhee and Fenty should focus on making small strides and keep moving forward. Take risks, to be sure, but steady progress on all fronts will be a vast improvement.

Nicholson details his efforts to stay in the District by searching for charter schools. However, like many start up charter schools, the lack of ability to navigate the notoriously difficult DC bureaucracy doomed Nicholson's efforts.
In the end, though, I couldn't sacrifice my son to an education system that seems at best inefficient and at worst willfully corrupt. As much as I admire Mayor Fenty, I can't help noting that his children go to a private school.

And if he doesn't send his kids to D.C. schools, why should I?
A very good question indeed and one that Rhee and Fenty have to answer.

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