In northeast Washington recently, Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, faced a challenging audience of over 250 angry parents. These parents had just found out that their children’s schools might be closed next fall. They were not interested in explanations of underutilized space or declining enrollment. They wanted answers directly from Ms. Rhee.
They questioned why seven schools in their neighborhood were targeted while no schools in a predominantly white, more affluent area of the city were included on the list. They also questioned the decision to move students from John Burroughs Elementary, which has a successful autism program, to a campus with older students. Additionally, they wondered why parents were not involved in the decision-making process of which schools to close.
Ms. Rhee assured the audience that the decisions were not yet final and that this was just the beginning of the process. However, some parents were skeptical, as Ms. Rhee has shown a strong and decisive leadership style since being appointed by Mayor Fenty in June. They recognized the need for bold action in improving the school system, but were also eager to hear more about Ms. Rhee’s strategies and vision for teaching and learning.
Since her appointment, Ms. Rhee has been proactive in pursuing her agenda, with the support of Mayor Fenty. She has stopped the hiring of principals she deemed weak, secured funding for school repairs, ensured timely delivery of resources, and set academic achievement goals with individual principals. Principals have praised her responsiveness and hands-on approach.
Currently, Ms. Rhee is exploring options for restructuring underperforming schools, including partnering with charter school management organizations. She is also working on a plan to close schools with low enrollment to redirect funding towards new academic initiatives.
Overall, Ms. Rhee has been taking bold steps to improve the District of Columbia school system, but parents are eager to hear more about her strategies for teaching and learning and improving student achievement, as this is the ultimate goal of her role as chancellor.
"Is it a valid reason to lose your job?" he questioned in response to reports of employees being unclear about their responsibilities. "If someone doesn’t know what they’re supposed to do, then you should train them."
Identifying the Problem:
Arlene C. Ackerman, an educational leadership professor at Teachers College, Columbia University who previously served as the superintendent for the District of Columbia from 1998 to 2000 and later as the schools chief in San Francisco, warned that Ms. Rhee’s aggressive approach towards central office employees could prove detrimental. "One mistake that those of us who have been in this position before have made is assuming that when a school system is broken, then the people working in the system are equally broken," she explained. When Ms. Ackerman became superintendent, one of her initial actions was to dismiss the entire human resources staff after learning about incidents of paychecks being issued to deceased employees and teachers not being paid correctly or on time. "And yet, even with a completely new staff, down to the secretaries, the HR system continued to be dysfunctional six months later," she added.
Clarence Cherry, the PTA president at John Burroughs Elementary School, voiced his objections to the school’s closure during a recent meeting with schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
Ms. Ackerman believes that when Ms. Rhee begins executing her ideas, she will need "sufficient support from people who believe in her good ideas. If you enter the situation and show disrespect to anyone who might potentially support you, then you are destined to fail."
Despite several requests, Ms. Rhee was unavailable for comment in this article. However, Mafara Hobson, a spokesperson for the chancellor, stated that Ms. Rhee does not have plans to terminate all central office employees. "She simply wants the authority that most CEOs and other government managers possess to remove ineffective employees from their positions," she clarified. Ms. Rhee has pledged to listen carefully, particularly in the following weeks as her school closure plans progress. "We have scheduled nine community meetings with the intention of hearing the community’s input and considering all their concerns," Ms. Hobson conveyed. "Undoubtedly, there will be areas in the plan that require adjustment." Terri Anomnachi, a local PTA president whose child attends one of the targeted elementary schools, questions the sincerity of this commitment to listening. "I have supported her actions up until now," Ms. Anomnachi stated regarding the chancellor, "but how can you decide which schools to close and have 4- and 5-year-old children attend schools with 13-year-olds without consulting parents first?"