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Embattled D.C. School District Has A New Vibe


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A year and a half after Washington, D.C. and its hard-charging school chancellor Michelle Rhee parted ways, the policies that earned her national attention as a tough visionary reformer are under scrutiny. The teachers' union wants to revoke a performance evaluation policy that had been presented as a national model. A cheating scandal has cast doubt on D.C.'s impressive gains in test scores. And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the new chancellor, Kaya Henderson, is trying to build the trust and goodwill she'll need to go forward with her own plans.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Nathan Saunders, president of Washington, D.C.'s teachers' union gives Chancellor Kaya Henderson credit for doing what he says her predecessor seldom did - collaborating with teachers.

NATHAN SAUNDERS: Oh, it's better, definitely better.

SANCHEZ: Henderson - Rhee's second in command - became chancellor after the 2010 election and after Rhee decided she could not work for the new mayor, Vincent Gray. But Henderson was left to clean up what Saunders calls a terrible mess.

SAUNDERS: When the former chancellor Rhee left here, this school system was in emotional disarray. There were a lot of people hurt. There were a lot of teachers that have been fired, careers ruined, district teachers and principals, administrators who, because they worked in Washington, D.C., they had been vilified.

SANCHEZ: Shortly after Rhee's resignation, administrators and teachers in a third of the city's elementary and middle schools stood accused of cheating, replacing students' wrong answers with right answers on multiple choice tests.

FRAZIER O'LEARY: Well, that's a severe embarrassment for the system.

SANCHEZ: Frazier O'Leary has taught high school English for most of his 42 years in Washington, D.C. He says administrators and teachers may have altered test scores because they feared for their jobs.

O'LEARY: You know, the pressure was put on principals, the pressure was put on teachers that the test scores had to be raised. But it had nothing to do with educating students.

SANCHEZ: In Washington, D.C., test scores account for 50 percent of a teacher's performance, more than in any other urban school district in the country. It's the policy Michelle Rhee devised and Chancellor Henderson has continued. Now, this is where you'd expect and want to hear Henderson's views, not just about the cheating but about everything else on her plate. After repeated requests though, Henderson declined to speak to NPR. An email from her office read: We felt that the scope of the story did not need the chancellor's voice in it. Henderson has called the cheating allegations unfounded, but local and federal investigations are under way and the school system's credibility is on the line. D'Shawn Wright is Washington, D.C.'s deputy mayor for education.

D'SHAWN WRIGHT: Is the investigation perhaps taking longer than some folks would like? Absolutely, it is. But I think it's more important that we do a thorough investigation, and so we're going to take as long as it takes.

SANCHEZ: Wright says Chancellor Henderson inherited lots of problems, but the system's reliance on test scores is not one of them.

WRIGHT: What we have to understand is that test scores are important in terms of measuring how well a teacher is having an impact in the classroom in terms of advancing the student, and we can't walk away from that.

SANCHEZ: Some teachers though are walking away. Adam Elmaghraby was 24 when he started teaching in D.C., drawn by Michelle Rhee's bold reforms. He resigned in 2009, in part because of the pressure to produce high test scores.

ADAM ELMAGHRABY: My test scores were awful. I tried to take them with a grain of salt but I don't think you can. Test scores were embedded in a system as a punitive system for teachers. In my mind, that's what made it so detrimental for teachers.

SANCHEZ: Elmaghraby, who is now pursuing an MBA in California says his experience was a huge disappointment.

ELMAGHRABY: I think what I thought going into education in Washington, D.C., knowing that it was the worst urban school district in the United States, was that if change was to happen in any institution, it must be done from the ground level.

SANCHEZ: He's not sure he believes that anymore. Even though it was drilled into him during his training with The New Teacher Project, an organization Michelle Rhee founded before becoming chancellor. Half of the young teachers in D.C. who came out of that program with Elmaghraby in 2008 are gone. As for Kaya Henderson, in a last ditch effort to interview the chancellor, I followed her to a national town hall meeting recently where she spoke about the district's school reform efforts.

KAYA HENDERSON: And so we have to bust through these paradigms and rubrics that we've been handcuffed by and present our young people with more and more diverse opportunities to engage in content in very different ways.

SANCHEZ: Afterwards, Henderson was in a hurry to leave.

HENDERSON: Hi, how are you?

SANCHEZ: That's Chancellor Henderson walking past me, too busy to talk. Still, her performance was revealing. It showed what Henderson's critics and supporters alike say is so different about her tone and style compared to Michelle Rhee's bluster.

AMY WILKINS: I think that Kaya's style and tone is probably exactly what the city needs now.

SANCHEZ: Amy Wilkins is with the Education Trust, a nonprofit group focused on closing the achievement gap. Wilkins is close to both Henderson and Rhee.

WILKINS: Michelle came in and woke us up. Were there smoother ways to do it? Absolutely. Kaya has moved us to a place where people can reflect more clearly on the policies, and the personality is not what's taking the oxygen in the room.

SANCHEZ: Inspired leadership is the key, says Wilkins. But can Henderson provide that inspired leadership? Can she raise the quality of teachers and close the achievement gap?

WILKINS: There's good reason to feel very hopeful about what can happen here.

SANCHEZ: Give her time, says Wilkins, give her time. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudio Sanchez
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