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Challenged D.C. Schools Chief Bringing Reform Story to Academia, National Media

CHICAGO — One of the biggest education stories in the United States in 2007 was the unexpected appointment of education reform leader Michelle Rhee as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools. Under a revamped school governance structure, Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee, formerly the president of the New Teacher Project, to transform the troubled school district into a high-performing system.

Given that Rhee, who took the job in June 2007, had no prior experience as a school superintendent, the appointment by Fenty proved controversial. In less than a year, however, Rhee has shown that she’s taking bold measures after leading an effort that will close 23 of 144 schools and reduce the school district central office administration from roughly 700 to 600 employees.

These days, Rhee is in high demand by the national media as well as by colleges and universities to report on the D.C. education reform she’s estimated will take years to complete. The day before delivering her scheduled commencement speech at the University of Michigan School of Education last week, Rhee visited with 200 education journalists at the National Education Writers Association annual conference in Chicago. Here’s some of what she had to say:

Q: Could you talk about what you have done to address serious concerns about school buildings and facilities?

A: When I came on board, we were having significant facilties issues, and, to be honest, we’re continuing to have those issues. When I came into the job I was reading report after report that talked about the number of health code violations, fire code violations, things that put children in imminent danger. And so one of the things I think that has been one of the smartest moves that the mayor made, in terms of how he structured the overall governance structure of DCPS, is that he pulled the responsibilities around facilities and put that under a man named Allen Y. Lew, who built the (Jacob) Javits Center in New York and the Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

It makes perfect sense. As an educator, my core competency is not in construction and modernization of buildings. That is what his core competency is, and he’s been able to accomplish more in the last 10 months than has been done in 10 years. So, we’ve made a lot of progress on that front. We are right now finalizing our mast facilities plan to put together a holistic look at how we’re going to modernize all of our school buildings over the next 10 years.

Q: How have you dealt with handling school closing decisions, especially when there is pushback from parents?

A: I tell people that if you quickly want to become the most unpopular person in the city tell someone you’re going to close down a school, much less 23 schools. I did not have a lot of happy campers on my hands.

We went through the process probably in as smooth a way as we could have. Any time you want to close a school you get a lot of emotions, a lot of sentiment — and people just don’t want their school to close.

It is incumbent upon us as a (school) district to be reaching out to parents; to be educating and informing them better; to be taking the data to them to say “look, if your child is not operating on grade level by the time they’re in third grade, the chances they’ll ever be on grade level are slim to none.”

One of the things that I’ve tried to do was to lay it out in data-driven terms. So I would say to the parents, “we have 144 schools in the district and we have 50,000 kids. With 50,000 kids, we should be running about 70 schools. And here’s the impact that it has. That means we’re spending all of this money on heating, lighting and air conditioning in half-filled buildings. If we could take that money and spread it over fewer schools, that means we’re going to have art teachers and music teachers.”

A few weeks ago, we finalized our budget and we will ensure that next year that at every single school in the District of Columbia that we have an art teacher, a music teacher, and a P.E. (physical education) teacher. In the District of Columbia, that’s almost unheard of. I am now certain that our students will be getting the broad-based curriculum that every single child deserves.

Q: Are you satisfied with your teaching staff?

A: What we know is that the quality of teachers that we have in the system is really the factor that’s going to make or break us in the end. We can have pretty buildings; we can have great curricula and programs, but unless we have (excellent) educators in the system, it’s all going to be for naught. We have a lot of work to do to make sure first that our teachers are getting what they need. We have a system right now where people can’t get paid on time; they can’t get their families on benefits. Until we can get to a point where we are providing teachers with what they need then it’s going to be hard to hold them accountable.

Q: How are you going to get better teachers?

A: There’s only so much I can talk about because we’re in the midst of our contract negotiations right now, so I can’t get into the details of that. I would say that we’re going about it with aggressive and very strategic recruitment efforts right now, and that we hope to have a compensation system that will actually reward great teachers.

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