- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

And so it begins, the District's grand experiment of school reform. It has been a tough year getting the pieces into place a new superintendent, a referendum that reshaped the school board, a return of the authority to implement change.
At the center is a spanking new hybrid school board, nine new members five elected, including the president, and four appointed who begin their work in earnest today. The board convenes its first public meeting to begin the process of fixing the city's broken school system.
Many in the District wonder if they can do it. Most cautiously hope so.
"We're in a honeymoon period and feeling very hopeful right now," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, founder of the advocacy group Parents United for D.C. Schools.
"It's important that there be a sense of confidence, of dynamism, so this optimism, in turn, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
She said she is hopeful that the board will involve parents the way they need to in order "to keep this momentum going."
The board's first test may be how many parents will come to watch its Committee of the Whole in action, although the meeting hasn't been widely advertised. Even board members haven't been given a written agenda.
"They can't make serious improvement if they don't engage the public," said Mrs. Rice-Thurston. "I would hate to see the first meeting poorly attended."
Board members have promised to stress parental involvement as a key strategy to improving the system.
"We need to do a better job advertising our actions and involving parents," said Dwight Singleton, District 2, one of two incumbent board members.
"We have got to increase the interest of the community in our schools."
Today, the board is expected to discuss the fiscal 2002 budget, pending charter-school applications, and committee structures and assignments.
In the future, they will tackle increasing parent involvement, improving curriculum and academic achievement for 69,000 students, increasing school funding and revamping school facilities.
In order to carry out these goals, the board must figure out the extent and kind of the authority the D.C. financial control board is handing them. So far, the control board has not given them any details, said Mr. Singleton.
The school board also has to regain public confidence and heal the bitterness that remains from a divisive June referendum, which narrowly installed the hybrid board, say board members and parents. Board members also have to show that they can work together and not get bogged down by the internal politics that ended the board's authority four years ago.
"The city was divided about whether we should go to this," said Roger Wilkins, professor of history and American culture at George Mason University, who was appointed to the board in November.
"But if we work hard to get results, people will say we were a good board regardless of how we got here. We have to be aware that politics can be a problem, but the welfare of the students of this city is more important than the ego or personal likes/dislikes of any member of the board," he said.
The new board, which is charged with setting policy and hiring school chiefs, also must learn to work closely with schools Superintendent Paul Vance and a mayor who has pushed education to the top of his agenda.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams has described the new school board as "an experiment" necessary to his reform plans and for attracting residents to the District.
"We shouldn't micromanage this board," said Mr. Williams at the board's swearing-in two weeks ago. "But we should not be sitting on the sidelines, either."
The mayor hasn't been afraid to intervene or "meddle" as some residents term it. Early last year, it was Mr. Williams who pushed for the hybrid school board. The initiative sidestepped a legal challenge and narrowly won in a divisive and bitter referendum fight. Then Mr. Williams appointed four highly credentialed board members, nonetheless leaving some in the city unappeased.
He chose an education professor, a high-level government urban planner and two nationally renowned academics. He picked no candidates from Ward 5 or east of the Anacostia River, sections of the city that most heavily opposed the referendum and which include one-third of all students.
"We have a lot of healing to do," said Mr. Singleton. "The citizenry is still traumatized. We have to define our roles, work together and look forward."
Still, many are confident that somehow the mayor, the D.C. Council, the superintendent and the school board will find a way to work harmoniously on solutions to improve the failing schools and to implement real change.
"It's a new day for public education in D.C.," said Mr. Vance at the swearing in of his new bosses. "We are all keenly aware of the significance of this moment, of the elevated expectations and the multitude of eyes fixed on us. The past failures have to be turned into opportunities now."
Newly elected board member Tommy Wells from District 3 said the experiment has to work because the children of the city deserve better. Besides, he added, "the people on this board are not used to failure."


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