12 June 2008

Anatomy of a hit.

If you want to understand the Rhee modus operandus in a nutshell, look no further than the Benning Elementary story in the Washington Post today. Leaving out the details, here's how it works: 1) meet and greet the community 2) pretend to hear their concerns, make promises, and assure them you are on their side 3) make decision that completely ignores or dismisses those concerns and promises 4) pretend you knew nothing about the community's concerns.

It's a pattern that's very transferable and has happened at a number of schools, although the Benning Elementary closure is certainly extreme -- Rhee uses this method for decisions great and small, because it's very effective: you've essentially bought time by making promises you have no intention of keeping, but by the time the community figures that out, they're fractured, shocked, and dismayed by your astounding duplicity.

Here's what happened at the end of last school year at Benning, a school suffering from deteriorating facilities and low enrollment (who wants to send his or her child to a school where the roof leaks?):
In an elegant white jacket, she [Rhee] walked the dimly lighted corridors and soiled carpets with Fenty and a platoon of cameras, chatting up students and teachers, promising to fix what ailed Benning. Fenty (D) picked the Northeast Washington school for Rhee's debut, aides said, because it crystallized many of the technical and academic challenges she would face.

Act I, the photo-op. The promises to fix the school. Fast forward to the end of the school year, and Benning Elementary is being closed:
A year after Rhee's whirlwind tour, the leaky roof remains, as does most of the worn-out carpet that kindergartners sit on each day. Other things got better, teachers and staff say. For the first time on Principal Darwin Bobbitt's three-year watch, the school had math and reading coaches, as well as an art teacher. All classroom teachers got new computers. Although maintenance personnel weren't able to fix the school's cranky air conditioning, they were far more responsive when it went down, staff members said.

In other words, fix the things that can move, like the computers and the personnel. Allow the students to spend each day on filthy rugs under unsound roofs, because all along Rhee knew her promises to keep Benning open were simply shell-game shuffles, designed to placate the parents committed, despite all its failings, to their neighborhood school.

Act II, then, begins with signs of improvement -- new computers, more academic support -- yet the larger structural problems remain unaddressed. That is classic rising tension...it reminds me in ways of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, in which the town's outward signs of economic success are belied by the poisons whose eventual discovery will compromise that economic recovery.

Act III, and this is a 3 Act play, comprises the climax and denoument so far. Rhee drops the hammer. Parents are stunned:
"What can I say? My word means nothing," said Tamika Jackson, mother of a second-grader. Like many Benning parents interviewed, she said she is looking to charter schools as an alternative.

Another of Rhee's goals accomplished: public school parents leaving the system for charter schools, those quasi-public institutions that believe they shouldn't be beholden to public oversight even as they swill at the public trough...

The play would not be complete, however, without Rhee's protestations that she did no wrong, broke no promises:
Rhee said she does not recall complaints about the roof, but tried to make what improvements she could. She said she does remember being impressed with Bobbitt, calling him a strong leader, and eventually offered him the principal's job this fall at Malcolm X Elementary in Southeast. As for the closing, she said it was unavoidable.
Bobbitt, for his part, retains a role in Rhee's next production and is understandably grateful, since Rhee has been replacing more successful principals with her friends and associates.

And that's the story so far, a sad tale of raised and dashed hopes, of promises unkept, and of the miscreants escaping justice. I fought the law and the law won, as the song goes.

I'm want to see the ending rewritten, perhaps expanded out to a five act, in which Rhee's hubris finally encounters sustained community solidarity, and she's held to account, made to justify her actions, and unable to do so, is summarily deposed by the mayor...or perhaps we will have to wait, like Fortinbras, for a final tragedy to clear the way for rejuvenation...


Washington Cube said...

D.C. schools are a wreck. One friend taught at Stevens. They are being shut down and transferred to a middle school building where they will take over a floor. The school already has low numbers and will continue to have them. Parents have the choice of placing their children elsewhere in this upheaval, and the teachers have to re-interview as if they never held the position.

Another friend who teaches on Capitol Hill told me things were in such uncertainty and upheaval he packed up all of his personal stuff this week to take home "just in case."

All of those principals fired and who is being put in their slots?

From the stories I'm hearing from the front, a tragedy is playing out, and it's the children who will suffer from this alleged rejuvenation.

cuff said...

Cube: I'm interested in your stories -- these are the things the Post isn't covering or isn't covering well. Principals, teachers, and parents (as well as older students) are very apprehensive about DCPS because no one knows what scheme Rhee will pull out next -- she promises (even in writing) one thing, then delivers another. It's extremely demoralizing for even the best of teachers, because Rhee doesn't seem to be following any sort of guidelines.

Washington Cube said...

Cuff: My friend who taught at Stevens has been teaching for some time. She ran a day care before that. For years, she was teaching Pre-K, this year, out of the blue, they dumped her with Second Grade. She rolled with it. She has her Master's in Education to cover Administrative-Principal work, and she's been battling to get that for years. She's consistently voted a top teacher, parents fighting to get into her classes. She's had a principal who, seeing a good teacher, doesn't want her leaving that role, so she has had to fight to even get interviews for Principal positions...and she'd be great. I'm sure.

She knows she may have to go over and teach in Montgomery County, which of course, would screw over her pension. Stevens had low numbers. I think those students are going to Francis Key MS. THAT school has low numbers, and as I said, the Stevens parents can also choose to send their child elsewhere..one of the schools over by Georgetown is an option. I can see how these actions are saving the DCPS in administrative costs, but it's killing morale in the teachers, and how is it benefiting the students?

Just this last week of school, my male buddy who teaches on Capitol Hill was told (with no warning) that they were now facing cuts...a certain percentage will be gone, so to pack his stuff because he might not be coming back. They were all told that..and oh yeah, folks..have a happy summer.

I can't figure out what's going on. Do you see how many times I've said "out of the blue," or "without warning." DCPS is like the Stalinist years. Uncle Joe will have the KGB knocking at your door, and the next thing you know, you're gone.