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...