- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The operative word for the District”s public school system and students during the upcoming school year predictably will be “freshman.”

Don”t let anybody fool you; mass turmoil abounds in the District”s public school system as freshman administrators, freshman principals, freshman teachers, freshman parents and freshman students attempt to figure out who reports to whom for what and where.

From today until the first day of school later this month, principals and teachers alike will be squirming like kindergartners in new orientation sessions.

The transfer and transition teams tripping all over each other in the amorphous lineup of acronymic bureaucrats answering to school chancellors, superintendents, deputy mayors, etc., are preparing for a huge systemwide pep rally Aug. 23 and Aug. 24 at the D.C. Convention Center in hopes of getting all hands reading from the same syllabus.

Meanwhile, an even bigger sea change — or “paradigm shift” in academic parlance — is occurring unnoticed. The District no longer will have junior high schools.

In case you hadn”t heard, all ninth-graders will report to high schools.

Under the master education plan, developed by ousted Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and to be adopted by freshman Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, D.C. schools will be reconfigured. Students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade will report to elementary schools, grades seven and eight to middle schools, and grades nine to 12 to high schools.

Unfortunately, the tricky transition got gobbled up in the school takeover shuffle brought to you by D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. So, it has been difficult for school officials and principals to determine how many members of the Class of 2011 can be counted on to show up in their proper place the first day.

“We don”t have a clear idea of where the students are going,” said Vicki Robinson, director of program improvement and new initiatives. The “improvement” was freshly added to her title.

Nonetheless, this calm take-charge leader took her task to heart and started working long before the end of the last school year getting parents and students geared up for their upcoming freshman foray.

“Hopefully the word is out,” she said yesterday.

Ms. Robinson traveled throughout the city for weeks for parent information meetings. It was a disheartening journey because she averaged only a handful of parents at each meeting, despite the free refreshments she often provided with her own money. Even if only one parent showed up, she did not shortchange her spiel about why the changes were taking place.

More requirements — called “Carnegie units” — were enacted under the master education plan. Students can now earn their high school diplomas by designing either, three-, four- or five-year plans.

Some researchers have suggested that the new-again grading configuration will improve academic achievement. Here we go, back to the future.

School officials also are hoping to deter students from switching to charter or private schools or dropping out, which typically occurs during the transition between junior and senior high school.

“Dr. Janey made the changes so the curriculum would be more rigorous, and so students would be prepared for college and the work force,” Ms. Robinson said when I initially interviewed her in June.

At the same time, she said, “It doesn”t matter who is in power; children will come to school, so we have to be ready.” In addition, all the dismantled junior high schools held promotional “stepping up” ceremonies for their eighth-graders, in part to give parents a visual awareness of the placement changes. In recent days, Ms. Robinson has been fielding calls from freshman parents, who viewed her recording on the school system”s cable television station.

Last week, all high schools were ordered to mail student schedules to parents by Aug. 10, she said. That mailing included notification of special ninth-grade orientation sessions on the first day and a welcome letter from the chancellor “asking parents to please call and let us know where your child is going.”

Ms. Robinson said they are expecting increased numbers of high school students, particularly at the 10 comprehensive, or neighborhood schools.

“Are we going to be ready? I pray we are. … I”m trying to be as proactive as possible,” she said.

Ms. Robinson has been telling high school principals and administrators to hire extra personnel and order extra supplies. “It”s better to have too much rather than not enough because at least we”ll have people in place.” Ms. Robinson said a major problem with projecting student placement is the annual requirement for parents to register their children and show proof of residence.

“I guess this started in the days when people from [Prince George”s County] would drop their kids off at the nearest [D.C.] school and drive off to their good government job,” she said.

During an editorial board meeting last week at The Washington Times, Mrs. Rhee agreed that the annual registration process is “ridiculous,” and needs to be scuttled.

Ms. Robinson, a former elementary school teacher, said there is a lot of information that needs to be conveyed to freshman students to make for a smooth transition, some as basic as putting room numbers on doors.

So bends the freshman learning curve. In D.C. Public Schools, Aug. 24 undoubtedly will be like no other.

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