- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2006

Who needs to watch a movie to experience “Deja Vu” in the District?

Old ideas and initiatives, touting nebulous reforms such as “community policing,” “best practices” and “school reform” get recycled with every leadership change.

D.C. Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty’s power grab for the school system, for example, is not befitting “fresh eyes.” Listening to the resurfacing debate about the District’s perennial school problems, my institutional memory sets off warning signals that urge “don’t go there” because “we’ve been down this road before.”

But here we find ourselves again, revisiting the testy school governance issue with the Young Gun.

Having gone through at least three leadership models, not including the one imposed by the imperialistic D.C. financial control board in the mid-‘90s, you would think that city stakeholders would have realized by now that governance is only a small part of the formula of producing successful students.

That’s sad, because the fight over control of the school system’s boardroom and burgeoning budget will, as usual, overshadow what needs to be an all-out attack on what goes on inside and outside the classroom.

“We have a lot of adult conversations on governance, and my whole campaign is singularly focused on student achievement,” said Robert C. Bobb, president-elect of the D.C. Board of Education. That conversation “gets in the way of what it takes to improve student achievement.”

Exactly.

This evening, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey will present the State of Schools speech at McKinley High School, ostensibly to highlight what he considers the achievements his team has made during his two-year tenure.

More importantly, “He will issue a charge to the public to come out more and support the schools and some of the changes he has been making in the last two years,” his spokesman John C. White said yesterday.

Mr. Janey also is expected to outline the initiatives he included in the master facilities and education plans earlier this year.

We hope that everyone else who wants a piece of the besieged school system, including Mr. Fenty, will take the time to read these proposals in their entirety before we get bogged down in the divisive battle brewing over control.

Where’s the payoff for all the oversight that already exists? The school system needs fewer chiefs, not more. And the real issue is that the city’s schoolchildren need more coordinated resources that go beyond the classroom, not less.

The New York Times Magazine printed a thought-provoking article Sunday titled “What It Takes to Make a Student.” Read it. You will learn a lot about how important students’ home environment is to their academic achievement. The author, Paul Tough, makes the sweeping indictment that if you place an inner-city student in an inner-city school, that child is more certain to fail. Mainly, it is because they are so far behind to begin with. He argues, along with the professionals quoted, that low-income students — those who qualify for free school lunches as the majority of D.C. students do — need more school instruction and resources, not less.

Yet researchers and reformers rarely address the neediest of students holistically. For starters, you cannot help children without assisting their parents, many living in impoverished communities.

Schools cannot improve academic performance alone. They do not, and cannot, operate in a vacuum. But we expect educators to address all manner of social ills and economic impediments plaguing students who are not ready or too stressed to learn when they reach the schoolhouse doors. Then we place the additional pressure on overwhelmed teachers of teaching to a standardized test, as if that is the Holy Grail of measuring individual improvement.

The jury is still out on Mr. Janey. But he has stated before that what he needs most from the city’s executive and legislative branches is more focused on coordinated city services to assist his students with improving their living conditions.

During Mr. Janey’s speech, for example, he is expected “to ask the District government to address the root causes of crime so the city can increase school and neighborhood safety because of what it means to our students,” Mr. White said.

Thomas Blagburn, a member of Mr. Fenty’s transition team, is a retired D.C. police officer who headed the community policing unit. He coordinated a community liaison program at a charter school.

“I spoke to Janey and told him that it would make no difference if you got the best and brightest teachers in the nation, or if you gave a specific school the best modernization plan,” Mr. Blagburn said. “If you don’t address the conditions these kids are coming out of, and the problems they are having in their homes and neighborhoods, it’s not going to make that much of a difference.”

He also suggested to Mr. Janey that “we need more mental health professionals than police officers to solve this problem.”

“I am ashamed to say that I have been in homes in this city where I thought I was in Bangladesh,” Mr. Blagburn said. “The conditions that some of these children are living in, through no fault of their own, is reprehensible. Their parents are struggling, and they need help. But we play this theater of school modernization and all kinds of stuff that doesn’t matter.”

Ah, but no one wants to deal with the hard-core stuff. No, it’s much easier to dance around the surface and make cosmetic changes that are nothing more than window dressing that we have seen and heard before.

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