- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee shied away from grading the system’s performance on the first day of class Monday but said she was satisfied with perhaps the most auspicious start to the academic year in recent history.

Mrs. Rhee toured a dozen schools, briskly inspecting hallways, greeting faculty and staff and even spending time chatting with elementary school students on the playground.

“I’m pleased with opening day,” she said after her tour of Garfield Elementary School, on Alabama Avenue Southeast. “Things are going extraordinarily well.”

Mrs. Rhee said there were no major problems at any of the 123 schools and that all had opened on time, as she said they would.

However, she confirmed reports that some students at Dunbar Senior High School in Northwest were being supervised in the school’s auditorium after several teachers failed to show up to work.

The number of teachers absent was not immediately available.

Mrs. Rhee said teachers are free to use sick leave “even on the first day of school,” but that she plans to address teacher absenteeism this year.

“High schools by far are the biggest challenges on the first day of school,” she said. Absenteeism “is something we want to work on at the high school level.”

Tony Robinson, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, said the first day went off with out a hitch but that he is waiting for final reports from schools.

“It went fine,” he said. “Certainly, if there was something major, we would have gotten a call to come repair it, but that call never came.”

Mrs. Rhee last week announced that textbook orders had been filled at all but one school, Oyster Elementary School in Northwest, but that otherwise schools were prepared for class.

Officials also made last-minute repairs over the weekend to schools that were behind schedule.

Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said 98 percent of students had received all of their immunizations and that the school system would use mobile medical centers to catch up the remaining students.

Mrs. Rhee’s often steely persona, which has drawn the critical eye of parents, education advocates and the D.C. Council, was absent much of the day as she toured schools.

During a lunchtime visit to Garfield, she played with a few dozen students at recess and sat down with others while they ate lunch, asking whether they were excited about school and whether they liked their new teachers.

Opening day for D.C. schools has been under heavy scrutiny by officials and parents after several incidents that have complicated or delayed the first day of class.

Problems have included a five-year legal battle over severe neglect of buildings that resulted in schools opening three weeks late in 1997.

Last year, school officials announced in August that they would need $120 million to make essential repairs to half of the system’s then-141 schools. Also last year, poor management of textbook orders left administrators scrambling to supply students. Parents were forced to wait hours to register some high school students after the schools were overwhelmed by latecomers.

In 2004, students at Eastern Senior High School in Northeast were sent home on the first day of school because class schedules were not available. The principal and two others were fired.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, said he had a limited view of the first day of school but that he was impressed with several schools he visited, including Winston Elementary School and Fletcher-Johnson High School.

“By and large it seemed to get off to a good start,” Mr. Gray said, adding that he is reserving judgment on the long-term effects of Mrs. Rhee’s work. “It’s an enormous amount of change. We’ll have to see.”

This is Mrs. Rhee’s second year running D.C. schools but her first year being settled in the position. She was hired in June 2007 after preparations for the school year were already under way.

Tanzi West, a spokeswoman for Prince George’s County Public Schools, reported no incidents in the 132,000-student system, which also started classes Monday.

“Everything went great,” she said. “The first day went very, very well. All of the children I saw seemed happy to be there. Parents seemed happy. Teachers seemed happy. Bus drivers seemed happy.”

Miss West said about 900 students as of June 9, the last day of classes for the 2007-08 school year, were without immunization records and that the number would be updated starting this week.

The state gives parents a 20-day grace period to submit proof of immunization. Miss West said the number of students without proof of immunization at this time last year was 3,000.

The system is Maryland’s second largest after Montgomery County’s.

Montgomery County schools open Tuesday.

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