Thursday, October 7, 2004

Bennie Adams, a native Washingtonian, has “a really good memory,” and he has “seen all of these school superintendents” come and go. Sorry to say, he doesn’t trust any of them.

Mr. Adams attended D.C. public schools from elementary school through graduation. His father is a retired D.C. school principal. He remembers when the schools began laying off employees. Currently, he is employed as the boys’ academic coordinator for Project 2000, a surrogate-parenting program that shepherds 88 middle, junior and senior high school students who live in distressed neighborhoods, such as Woodland Terrace, through the city’s educational conundrum.

“My generation is real skeptical of the older generation,” said Mr. Adams, 27. He is “not very trusting,” because “leaders seem like liars,” and young people “have consistently been lied to.”

That pervasive frustration and skepticism, Mr. Adams said, is “being passed down to Terrell” and another generation of disillusioned city youths.

Terrell Pharr is one of the Project 2000 proteges. This tall, reed-thin junior, who has aspirations of becoming a broadcast engineer, attends the Friendship Edison Collegiate Academy. On Tuesday night, Terrell desperately wanted to find out “if he could do something about the [school] budget so every kid can take home a book.”

“He” is Clifford B. Janey, the newest in the long list of school superintendents for the disintegrating D.C. public school system. Last month, “he” became the fifth person in nine years hired for that political hot seat.

Mr. Adams, Terrell’s mother, Denise McDuffie, and Terrell went seeking answers from Mr. Janey at a community meeting that evening hosted by school board member William Lockridge at Stanton Elementary School. It was a way to introduce the 58-year-old educator who hails from a housing project in Boston.

Mr. Janey told the students in the large crowd that “it’s not where you start, it’s where you end up.”

After the two-hour meeting, Terrell said, “He talked about his life, but how’s he going to change things to help us out in school?”

Miss McDuffie, said “a lot was lacking” at the introductory session. This stay-at-home mother of three school-age children attends a lot of meetings because she believes in parent participation.

“Janey was asking too many questions and not giving out enough input,” said Miss McDuffie, who is concerned about school security. “What can he do? We need to know what [his] plans are for the new year.”

The soft, thoughtful, plain-spoken Mr. Janey, however, appeared genuinely interested in engaging the audience in meaningful dialogue. Frequently, he used inviting phrases such as “I’d like to know what you think about …” or “Would you think about considering …” and “I’d like to get your thoughts on …” as he suggested ideas for academic improvements that served him well as school superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., from 1995 to 2002.

“The house is full, full of good will and good ideas, and I look forward to working with you,” Mr. Janey said.

Elizabeth Davis, a teacher at Sousa Junior High and a teachers union representative, said, “The message here is that he intends to hit the ground running.”

While the jury may be out, Mr. Janey initially impressed some of the system’s harshest critics. He focused his remarks on improving academic performance, parental involvement, facilities and revamping the educational curriculum to suit the students’ learning styles and timetables. He received accolades especially when he suggested reinstating vocational-education classes, forging apprenticeship alliances with local businesses, and raising standards for teachers and principals.

His plans to hold open-house sessions for parents and establish parent centers in underused school buildings, instead of selling them off to the highest bidders, were meet with rousing applause. “You don’t give up your house, do you?” he asked.

He really won them over when he vowed to stand up to meddlesome interlopers on Capitol Hill, and elsewhere, who try dictate to local school officials.

Emily Washington, a teacher and former member of the appointed school board under the D.C. financial control board, said Mr. Janey “knows instruction.” He was the first person she has heard in 30 years say, “This is more of a mission than a job.” She is a harsh critic of the system, which she says cheats black students.

“Dr. Janey’s going to ruffle some feathers, and I told him to anchor himself in the ‘hood,” Mrs. Washington said.

Daniel Hudson, the new principal of Ballou High School, said, “Where [Mr. Janey] got me in his hip pocket is that he sees a complete systematic change.”

Indeed, this is the first time in a long time that I’ve seen someone new come to the ‘hood and ask the people what they want and need, rather than tell them what he or she is going to give them or do to them regardless of what they asked for.

Still, Mr. Adams said, “I’ll wait until [Mr. Janey] makes his first decision. It’s not that I’ve got a negative opinion, but I need to see action before I can formulate an opinion on what this man can do for this community. … Actions will tell the answers to all of that.”

“I hope he is going to try to do something, but I don’t know if he’s going to be successful. He’s got some working to do,” Miss McDuffie said.

As Mr. Janey makes the requisite rounds to meet with District residents, officials and other stakeholder, it’s not his fault that his first and most formidable task will be to win the trust of the likes of Bennie Adams and Denise McDuffie.

So far, Mr. Janey’s reception has been generally “heartening and encouraging.” He said, “I feel people want to get it right this time.”

For Terrell’s sake, we should wish him well.

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