- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Separating the wheat from the chaff is as messy in the Anna Nicole Smith legal case as it is in the D.C. school-reform debate. Each side says its interest lies in the welfare of the baby, but each side has different motives. Right now all we’re witnessing in both instances is a free-fall and unconventional airing of various opinions with no ending in the distant future. The Anna Nicole case will likely be settled long before D.C. children are lifted from the lower rungs of the academic ladder.

In fourth-grade reading, D.C. students rank last, with 67 percent at the below-basic level.

In eighth-grade reading, D.C. students rank last, with 55 percent at the below-basic level.

Many D.C. voters and parents, especially those families who depend on public schools, don’t have great expectations. They know the schools have failed two generations of young people, having graduated a generation of adults who now are, for all intents and purposes, academically incapable of handling little more than their children. But they keep hoping for the best.

The East Coast cold wave has exposed more than busted boilers. Parents learned that the school system continues to operate in crisis mode. It happened when several schools had to be closed because of heating problems. As a result of the crisis, the superintendent announced a $900,000 fix-the-heating-problem “blitz.” He told the school system to begin hiring contractors and he put at least 40 schools on the “blitz” list. In January, the superintendent announced a fix-the-restroom “blitz” list to repair school restrooms. Two-thirds of the school inventory, or 100 schools, are on the fix-the-restroom-problem “blitz” list. Yet a third list will include all 140-plus schools. That list will tend to the air-conditioning-problem “blitz.” Then, come next winter, the superintendent can begin the “blitz” all over again.

This is no way to run a school system. School Board President Robert Bobb, who as D.C. city administrator was chiefly responsible for seeing the forest and the trees, knows the school system is in its comfort zone when it operates in crisis mode. The “system” has noting to lose. If the superintendent doesn’t tell the “system” to prepare for winter, then the “system” goes along to get along.

I became entwined with how the system works — or more precisely doesn’t work — in 1998. At that time, a different superintendent decided to draw parents, teachers and community leaders together to draw up a list of which schools should be closed, which schools should be rebuilt and which schools should be simply modernized. A year later, in 1999, we delivered our lists and the powers that be finalized that list and approved its $1.3 billion price tag. Seven years later, one of the schools that was to be rebuilt — H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington — was shut down for nearly two weeks because of heating problems.

The system was keenly aware of the problems at Woodson, which has been at the top of the system’s to-do list since 1998.

Great expectations for school reform sprung anew yesterday at a Citizen’s Forum held at The Washington Times. The timing of the forum was perfect, as debate over Mayor Adrian Fenty’s legislative proposal and that of the school board’s take center stage. The two plans are more different than they are alike: The mayor wants to bring the entire system under the authority of City Hall while the school board promises to raise student achievement. Both plans have merit, and the two should be merged. But that’s not the way most D.C. folk view the problem. For too many of them — especially the detractors who like to raise Caine for the sake of raising Caine — you either side with the mayor or side with the school board.

I side with the children.

The D.C. detractors always find their way to a microphone or a TV camera, and have become part of the problem. Indeed, they always get the ear of the stakeholders, but the stakeholders won’t be honest and admit they are far more interested in the chaff than the wheat. The detractors want the system to potty train the babies, feed the children, hold nap times for the tots and discipline the adolescents and tweens, and toss the high schoolers to the wind. If the system is spending most of its time on three hots and a cot, and timeouts, when do the teaching and learning come in? Are we turning our schools into babysitting services?

There is but one goal post for public schools, and it’s called education. It is “incumbent” upon D.C. leaders “to improve student achievement and do so with a sense of urgency,” Mr. Bobb said at yesterday’s forum. “Preparing children for school, that’s not a school board issue, that’s a D.C. government issue. Working with families and neighborhoods, that’s not a school board issue, that’s a D.C. government issue.” Mr. Bobb should have, but didn’t, get an amen.

It took D.C. native Terry Goings to reflect the passion and frustration of being a high-school principal to drive the issue home. Seated between the school board president and the deputy mayor, Mr. Goings painted a clear picture of what has not occurred for 15 years: “The system has gotten worse… It’s been an emergency for the last 15 years. I’ve been testifying for the last five years and nothing’s changed… Where’s the sense of urgency? When are we going to stop passing the buck… [Where’s] the $10 million for [school] technology that got lost? I don’t trust the system.”

Between the test scores, the closed schools and the views from inside the system, the picture can’t get any clearer.

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