- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2008

D.C. public school Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has shuttered 23 schools, fired more than 30 principals and given notice to hundreds of teachers and administrative workers.

Just a year on the job, Mrs. Rhee is making bold changes as she tries to accomplish what six others in the past decade could not: rescue one of the country’s most dysfunctional school districts.

“My goal is to make D.C. the highest performing urban school system in the country,” she said as D.C. schools open Monday.

That’s an audacious statement for somebody who had no experience running even a single school when she arrived.

Mrs. Rhee, a Korean-American, also is the first D.C. schools chief in nearly four decades who is not black. At 38, the Ivy-League-educated educator is one of the country’s youngest leaders of a big urban school district.

Like many U.S. cities, the District is struggling to educate students amid poverty and violence. Students also have suffered because of entrenched cronyism, which has led to incompetent bureaucracy and fiscal mismanagement.

Though the school system is among the country’s highest spending, its students rank near the bottom in reading and math proficiency. Schools have leaky roofs and broken fire sprinklers. Bathrooms are decrepit, with broken toilets and missing stall doors.

“People want Michelle Rhee to succeed because no one knows what’s going to happen if she doesn’t,” said Mary Levy, who has been involved in the schools since her children enrolled in the 1970s.

Still, Mrs. Levy is wary. She has seen school chiefs arrive with great fanfare only to leave in exasperation. Army Lt. Gen. Julius Becton Jr. was tapped in 1996 by a presidentially appointed board. He quit after 18 months.

“I consider it the most difficult job I ever had,” said Gen. Becton, who fought in three wars and was awarded two Purple Heart medals.

Mrs. Rhee said this time will be different because Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, made school reform his top priority when elected in 2006.

Mr. Fenty has seized control of the schools, done away with the school board. He also won the power to hire and fire the superintendent. He picked Mrs. Rhee, founder of the New Teacher Project, which trains teachers to work in urban schools. “You don’t want me for this job,” she initially told Mr. Fenty.

Still, she is convinced a motivated teacher can help even the most disadvantaged student achieve. She said her belief is shaped by three years of teaching in Baltimore.

So far, Mrs. Rhee has streamlined the school system’s central office by firing nearly 100 employees. She dismissed 36 principals she considered ineffective, including one at the elementary school her two daughters attend. She also sent termination letters this summer to 750 teachers and teacher’s aides who missed a certification deadline.

Her approach has its critics. The decision to close 23 under-enrolled schools was particularly controversial, with some parents accused her of rushing the process. The D.C. Council, which approved Mr. Fenty’s schools takeover plan, has balked at not being consulted on decisions and has held up money for school repairs.

Still, Mrs. Rhee can point to some momentum. Recent test scores show the number of schools making adequate progress in math and reading under the federal No Child Left Behind law increased from 31 to 47 - or about one-third of the school system.

“If anyone can be successful, she can,” Gen. Becton said.

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