Sunday, February 03, 2008

Top Issue For D.C. Schools? Parents.

Check out the Washington Post Poll that's mentioned in this article. -Patricia

By David Nakamura and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 21, 2008; Page B01

So Say Residents, Who Cite Apathy

Seven in 10 D.C. residents believe the city's public schools are performing inadequately, with the lack of parental involvement still cited as the biggest problem facing the nearly 50,000-student system, a Washington Post poll has found.

Despite widespread concerns, however, 68 percent of those polled believe Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's takeover of the schools will help improve them, and 59 percent approved of the performance of his handpicked schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee.

The poll of 1,000 randomly selected adults took place from Jan. 3 to 8, before last week's public hearings on Rhee's controversial plan to close 23 schools this fall. A vocal group of parents and activists has called the plan insensitive and poorly thought out, and more than 200 boycotted the scheduled hearings Thursday, holding a counter-gathering instead.

Rhee, who said the closings will save money that can be invested in program enhancements, said she will make amendments. But she did not promise to remove schools from the list, as some critics of the closing plan have demanded.

Although relatively hopeful about the future of the education system under Fenty (D), residents remain skeptical of the mayor's performance on education after a year in office, with about half giving him good marks.

The poll also showed that views are divided sharply along racial and socioeconomic lines, and Fenty's approval ratings on school reform falls to 39 percent among parents with students in the public schools.

But little has changed in District residents' perceptions of the biggest problems facing the public schools since Fenty took office. As in July 2006, about three-quarters called the condition of buildings and other facilities, the lack of parental involvement, disruptive students, and the presence of violence or crime "big problems."

In a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors last week, Rhee said she was not surprised that public school parents were the most frustrated.

"We've made a lot of improvements, but fundamentally we have not changed the things that matter most: the quality of instruction," said Rhee, who took over in June after Fenty downgraded the school board and took direct control of the system. "Until we do that, we will continue to hear that" frustration.

That might take a while: Rhee said she expects to see signs of academic improvement by the 2008-09 school year, but allowed that it could be eight years before the system is in good shape.

Fenty said his first year in charge of the schools was aimed at getting "controversial, aggressive" policy changes in place.

The mayor has successfully pushed through legislation that gives Rhee authority to fire central office employees more easily, and he has created a separate departme nt in charge of school renovations, headed by Allen Y. Lew. "It's about laying the foundations of change, creating the inertia so the system is set up to go 700 miles per hour and never stop," Fenty said.

Amy Kauffman, 44, a poll respondent who works in public policy and lives in Georgetown, said her three children, ages 5, 8 and 10, attend parochial school. But she will consider switching them to public high schools if things improve. "That's why I have to have faith in Adrian," Kauffman said.

But Jacqueline Yates, 37, whose 13-year-old daughter attends Hine Junior High, which is scheduled to close, is less optimistic.

"Since he's taken over, nothing has still been done about the school system," Yates, who lives in Congress Heights, said of Fenty. "By them closing these other schools, the [remaining] schools are going to get more packed."

Such frustration was on display at the hearings and protest meeting last week.

Chris Allen, who has two children at John Burroughs Elementary in Northeast Washington, said Thursday night that she joined the protest at the "People's Meeting" at the John A. Wilson Building because she felt "disrespected" that Fenty and Rhee were not including enough parent input in their decisions on the closings. "They can't be listening to us, they're not there," she said.

The racial and class division on the schools echoes similar divides reflected in Fenty's overall approval ratings and the outlook on the future of the city. White and more-affluent residents were generally more optimistic about the city and approving of the mayor than were black and poorer residents.

Whites more frequently mentioned schools as the city's top problem, while blacks called crime a bigger concern. Thirty percent of blacks gave the schools decent marks, more than twice the 14 percent of whites who did so.

At the same time, half of black residents and half of residents in wards 7 and 8, the poorest in the city, approved of Rhee's job performance; 71 percent of whites and 64 percent of those living in more affluent Northwest approved.

Rhee did not include a school from affluent Ward 3 on her closings list, saying that ward has the fewest schools and is not experiencing enrollment drops.

"Someone said to me that we have to close a school in Ward 3 as a symbolic gesture. I thought it was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard," Rhee said.

Asked whether she takes race and social class into consideration, she responded: "You have to be sensitive. It's a valid question people should ask. But I cannot allow it to dictate decisions. It should be what's best for kids first and foremost."

Many residents polled said part of what would be best for District students and schools is addressing parent apathy. Twenty percent of those surveyed called the lack of parental involvement the top problem"Many parents spend more time researching a new car than their school," said Bob Payne, a Capitol Hill computer consultant who plans to send his two young children to public school. "I also realize some of the economic realities where you've got some families with two parents working really hard to scrape by" with little free time.

Rhee said the school system cannot demand more of parents until it offers better services. "I have seen firsthand how parents are treated in our schools," said Rhee, whose two daughters attend Oyster Elementary in Ward 4. "I can't blame them if they do not jump to volunteer."

Crime and violence is what worries Ivana Williams, who lives in Ward 5's North Michigan Park neighborhood and has a 14-year-old son at Wilson High School in Ward 3. Her son's cellphone was stolen during gym class, she said.

Williams said she fears things could worsen with the school consolidation plan, which some activists have cautioned would bring together students from rival neighborhoods.

"I'm hopeful, but I've been hopeful for years," said Williams, who attended D.C. public schools through 11th grade in 1972. "I don't know what they can do to improve the schools and test scores and discipline. To me, it's not putting more kids together in one school."

Staff writers Robert E. Pierre, Nikita Stewart and V. Dion Haynes and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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