D.C.'s chief of schools was tested in our city

The Baltimore Sun

Inside the Harlem Park Elementary classroom, there were 36 second-graders, more than their teacher felt she could control, much less educate.

Outside the classroom, there was additional turmoil: Harlem Park was one of nine schools that amid great controversy were handed over to a private company that promised to do a better job managing them than the much-maligned public school district had.

That was Michelle Rhee's introduction to the churning world of urban education. So when people talk about what a daunting task she faces in her new job as chief of the Washington, D.C., public school system, well, it's won't be the first time.

"I think it was somewhat overwhelming," Rhee told me yesterday, looking back on the three years, from 1992 to 1995, that she taught at Harlem Park.

That those three years make up the entirety of Rhee's in-school experience is part of why her appointment as head of the D.C. schools has created such a buzz in education circles.

People are openly questioning how someone so young and inexperienced - she's 37 - can run the D.C. school system, which like many large urban districts is a veritable minefield of low-performing students and aging facilities.

There are others, though, who are just as vocal about lauding her appointment as a fresh, bold move - and point to her outsider status as a plus rather than a minus when it comes to bringing about true reform.

For Rhee, it's all about the classroom - and what she learned in that classroom at Harlem Park, located in an impoverished, crime-ridden West Baltimore neighborhood.

"It showed me that academic achievement was possible, and it had everything to do with teaching in the classroom," she said. "People always say, 'Oh, these kids can't achieve for X, Y or Z reasons.' What I saw first-hand was they can."

She had just graduated from Cornell with a degree in political science and, unsure of what to do next, had seen a PBS program on Teach for America, which sends new grads, often from Ivy League colleges, to work for two years at particularly needy schools across the country.

Trying to decide whether to join the teachers' corps or go to grad school, she talked to her grandmother, telling her she was worried that teaching would be really hard. "It's kids!" her grandmother said. "How hard can it be?"

Rhee soon found out.

"My biggest problem was classroom management," she said. "I had a challenging group my first year. It took me quite a few months to get to where I could get them to focus on instruction. My first year, I really struggled."

Rhee feels she hit her stride the next year, when she and another teacher team-taught a group of second- and third-graders and followed them into the next year.

"We thought, 'Who's this Korean lady?' " recalled Denise Hall, one of Rhee's students that second year in what was largely an African-American school. "But she bonded with us. She took learning to a different level."

Hall, 21, credits Rhee with tapping into a talent that she had for math. "She saw something in me I didn't even notice," Hall said. "One day she sat down with me and showed me long division. She said, 'I know you can do it.' "

Rhee paired the students up with pen pals in Ohio - where she was raised - and the kids raised funds that allowed them to meet the Ohio pen pals in person. "I'd never been out of Baltimore," Hall marveled.

Hall said she and other students cried when Rhee left after three years - one more than she had committed to with Teach for America - when she decided to go to Harvard for a master's degree in education.

Hall remembers something else about her time in Rhee's classroom: "She talked about test scores, and how she wanted us to improve." Rhee's resume boasts that she was able to take students scoring at the 13th percentile in a national test, and move 90 percent of them to the 90th percentile. I wasn't able to confirm that figure with the school district, although Ben Feldman, chief of testing, said annual reports from Rhee's tenure at Harlem Park do show some impressive gains in third-graders' scores.

Judging a school, and any teachers, by test scores turns out to be trickier than you might think - particularly in this case. Harlem Park was among a group of schools taken over by the company EAI in a closely watched and controversial experiment with privatization.

Always unpopular with teachers unions and other groups, the experiment, meant to last five years, ended after 3 1/2 years amid charges that EAI delivered neither the educational improvements nor the financial efficiencies that it had promised.

After graduating from Harvard, Rhee started the nonprofit New Teacher Project, which has worked with school districts, including Baltimore and Washington, to recruit and train new talent.

That makes her less of an outsider than she may seem, Rhee said. Still, she's spent much of her time since her appointment meeting school personnel and community members, saying they've all been "welcoming."

"I believe," she said, "we are all on the same page."



Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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