A Relentless Drive to Reform D.C. Schools

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Michelle Rhee, the new chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system, is in a race to save public education in the city. It is one of the country's worst school systems, and for all of her fresh ides, she is still a largely unknown quantity. But she has the support of the mayor, who has made school reform a top priority.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

While he was growing up in the District, Mayor Adrian Fenty attended public schools. Education is a big issue for him, mainly because the school system is in trouble. He's appointed a new chancellor, Michelle Rhee. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this profile of the woman charged with reforming D.C.'s public schools.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Michelle Rhee is in a hurry - no, a race - to save public education in the nation's capital.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SANCHEZ: Today she's meeting with building inspectors and construction engineers at Cardozo High School, a cathedral-like 92-year-old building on a hill overlooking downtown Washington. Rail thin in sleek black pants, tight sweater and black Manolo Blahnik stilettos, Rhee walks past the school's thick metal doors, shiny BlackBerry in hand.

Unlike her predecessors - six of them in the last ten years - Rhee travels alone, except for a driver, no handlers, no perky assistants.

(Soundbite of beeping)

SANCHEZ: The metal detector goes off as she swooshes by, not stopping or acknowledging the school's security staff. They stare as Rhee heads straight to the main office, then to Frazier O'Leary's(ph) senior English class.

Mr. FRAZIER O'LEARY (English Teacher, Cardozo High School): Hey, Chancellor Rhee.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools): How are you?

Mr. O'LEARY: How are you doing? Good to see you.

Ms. RHEE: I brought the man, the people who are responsible for all the building stuff.

Mr. O'LEARY: Oh great.

Ms. RHEE: 'Cause I know that the kids had some questions that they wanted to ask him.

SANCHEZ: This is the way Rhee operates, dropping in on schools, letting students and parents grill school bureaucrats. Today the man on the hot seat is Allen Lew(ph), who was hired to deal with the District's crumbling infrastructure. A girl named Deanna(ph) raises her hand.

Ms. DEANNA (Student, Cardozo High School): I just wanted to know why is it taking to long to renovate Cardozo?

Mr. ALLEN LEW (Hired to Renovate D.C.'s Public Schools): I'm going to be cynical about this but I think the system was broken.

SANCHEZ: That's why Michelle Rhee is now in charge of the D.C. public schools, and no one seems more surprised than the 37-year-old Rhee.

Ms. RHEE: I am the opposite, the diametric opposite of what most people both had hoped for and expected. I am young, I am Korean-American, I have never run a school district before, I am not from Washington, D.C.

SANCHEZ: Not exactly selling points in a majority-black city with a reputation for embracing then unceremoniously dumping accomplished, tough black educators, each with grand plans that went nowhere, for good reason says Rhee.

Ms. RHEE: People are extraordinarily skeptical and suspicious here and they are incredibly mistrustful of the District. If you hear the stories about what has happened here to parents and students, teachers, in the past you understand why people have a healthy dose of skepticism when looking at me and the reforms and the things that I'm doing.

SANCHEZ: What's different for her, says Rhee, is that Mayor Adrian Fenty now controls the schools, and she's his choice to fix them. Still parents are skeptical. Lee Glaser(ph) is co-founder of a group called Save Our Schools Coalition.

Ms. LEE GLASER (Co-Founder, Save Our Schools Coalition): Under Rhee we've seen more clouded lines of responsibility and accountability, less transparency. And so I don't see it as being about children at all. I think it's incredibly…

SANCHEZ: Glaser pauses. Incredibly disappointing she finally says. And Rhee's response?

Ms. RHEE: There are a lot of people out there who are sort of the professional nay-sayers.

SANCHEZ: Rhee says she's not going to let nay-sayers stand in the way of change. Already she's put hundreds of central office workers on probation in a not-so-subtle effort to push many of them out. And she's closing at least 23 schools where enrollment has been dropping.

But can Rhee raise the school system's moribund academic performance quickly?

Ms. KATIE HAYCOCK(ph) (President, Education Trust): We actually don't know the answer to that.

SANCHEZ: Katie Haycock, president of the Education Trust, lobbies for low-income and minority school children.

Ms. HAYCOCK: A lot of people will say, oh, Michelle's going too fast, you know, she's moving the policy changes through, she's trying to move people out the door who are no good, she really ought to be gentler, she ought to go slower and somehow this way she'll survive. Frankly, slow change actually allows people to build up their opposition. So I'm actually among those who thing that when you've got a system as broken as this one, you have to move fast if you really want to bring about change.

SANCHEZ: Haycock got know Rhee eight years ago when Haycock joined the board of directors of a new teacher's project, which Rhee founded, to help urban school systems recruit and keep good teachers. Haycock says Rhee will be relentless as long as the mayor backs her up.

That's true, says Rhee, although the first time Fenty offered her the job, she turned him down. She says she wasn't sure he'd be willing to put his political career on the line but making school reform his number one priority. Seven months into her tenure, Rhee is feeling good about her decision to take the job. She's put her two young daughters in one of the city's public schools, bought an old Victorian home, and settled comfortably into her job, confident that Mayor Fenty will keep his promise.

Ms. RHEE: He's made it very clear throughout the city. When he first brought the cabinet together to introduce me, he said, no one is allowed to say no to the chancellor except for me.

SANCHEZ: Rhee leans back and says she wouldn't have it any other way.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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