- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

At a meeting this week with the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners' Assembly, Superintendent Paul L. Vance placed blame for the D.C. school system's problems on instability of its employees.
Mr. Vance cited the example of several high schools that have had a different principal in each of the past three years. "We've embarked on an ambitious course this year of getting the right principals in the right schools in the right communities," Mr. Vance vowed.
If playing musical chairs with principals is a core problem then what of playing musical chairs with superintendents, administrators and board members? Just about the only thing you can count on in the District's undependable school system is a change in the cast of characters leading yet another "reform" charge.
Inevitably, with each new group comes a rehashed "strategic plan" promising sweeping changes in administration, facilities, curriculum and training to improve the academic performance of students. Few take into account that far too many of the District's students are in need of much more than reading, 'riting and 'rthmetic.
"I've worked with five superintendents and each one of them had a strategic plan and none of them worked," said the Rev. Ruth Godwin, a longtime community activist and educator from Ward 5 after Tuesday evening's gathering at the Logan School on Capitol Hill.
Many of these plans didn't work because many of the new people fail to include many of the old people like "Mother Godwin" who have been around and could tell them a thing or two if they'd only listen.
So like his predecessors, Mr. Vance, the latest in a long line of D.C. superintendents, accompanied by Steven G. Selznow, the latest chief of staff, and Mary Gill, the latest chief academic officer, are hip-hopping around town shopping their newest, nebulous "Business Plan for Strategic Reform."
The trio's reception at Logan School this week was a far cry from the testy crowd they encountered at the Board of Education's town hall meeting at the University of the District of Columbia the week before. By all accounts, the board's meeting the preceding evening at Ballou High School bordered on a public brawl.
The board pathetically attempted crowd control at UDC by initially accepting only written questions read to Mr. Vance by a school secretary. It took community activist Lawrence Guyot to stand and shame the members of the newly designed hybrid board into opening the microphone to anxious and angry parents.
Parents were hardly interested in the "business plan"; few asked questions about the hastily pulled together five-page draft summary that is loaded with bureaucratic buzzwords and little that's substantive or new. It is such a disservice to parents to present them with yet another highfalutin consultant's study loaded with hocus-pocus.
If you've seen one of these so-called strategic plans, you've seen them all. From the D.C. financial control board to the Board of Trustees to all manner of public interest groups like the Federal City Council (which paid for the latest study), D.C. Agenda, D.C. Appleseed and D.C. COPE, the strategic-plan promises are never in the pudding.
So it's no wonder that frustrated D.C. parents trek out to town hall forums and community meetings and take up precious time venting their horror stories, some so personal that no one should have to bare them publicly. All they really want is for someone to answer the phone and give them a reasonable resolution.
The overriding sentiment that's voiced over and over — whether politely as with the ANC commissioners or painfully as with parents standing in long lines waiting to have their say — is that the District still has a school system that remains aloof and unresponsive to the very constituency it is chartered to serve.
Forget the grandiose plans with mushy mission statements "to develop inspired learners who excel academically and socially in dynamic schools that instill confidence and generate enthusiasm throughout the District's many communities and make D.C. Public Schools the first choice of parents."
Get real. At UDC, one parent of a special-needs student pleaded repeatedly for a simple answer to a very simple question. She wanted to know whether students were going to have all the necessary textbooks and materials when school opens Sept. 4.
The question speaks volumes. The answer: Ms. Gill assured her they would have their books in "core" classes.
Mr. Selznow acknowledged to the smaller ANC group at Logan School that "you won't find anything miraculous because they are things that all good school systems have."
So much for the hard sell. But what is troubling is that "parents and community" are placed next to last on a graphic of a stack of books that picture the "six transformational goals [that] address the District's many challenges and will help to make this mission a reality."
It states, "We need to treat parents as both partners and customers; we also need to find productive ways to engage in the many community groups that are interested in giving more to our schools."
One parent sneered, "They need to replace 'treat' with 'respect.'"
"The history has been that people feel locked out," said yet another ANC member.
Mr. Vance told those in the small gathering that his "No. 1 issue" is the establishment of a community network system composed of small "intimate more personal" meetings to "get out the business plan" as opposed to larger, unruly town hall meetings.
He reasoned aloud that he and his staff "could listen better and do better follow-through" in the more informal settings.
Secondly, he asked the ANC members to recruit more parents to comment during the school board's monthly meetings because "you would be surprised the impact that has on us."
No doubt we would.
To his credit, Mr. Vance admitted to the ANC folks there appeared to have been "a lack of appropriate responses" on the school system's part. The community leaders, in turn, seemed willing to give this latest superintendent with his latest plan at least half a chance.
I, however, am not so patient. It all seems like SSDDsame stuff, different directorto me.
Adrienne T. Washington's e-mail address is [email protected]

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