Grantmakers meet new D.C. schools Chancellor

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Chancellor Rhee, addressing Washington Grantmakers’ members on July 25.

Newly appointed DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is an optimist. “We can do this. This is fixable,” she declared to more than 75 Washington Grantmakers (WG) members at a July 25 meeting hosted by WG’s Public Education Working Group (PEWG). Armed with confidence and a clear vision, Rhee outlined what she called a “wholesale culture shift” in the District’s public school system.

Rhee is committed to developing quality instruction by investing in the best and brightest teachers and principals. She believes that top-notch educators are the linchpins of an excellent education, and that this fact has been consistently neglected in the current system. Over the course of the next few months, she will head a nationwide search to fill vacant principal positions. Her staff is also looking at the best ways to attract and retain talented teachers.

The Chancellor’s focus on human capital is tied to a strict sense of accountability. Whereas in the past the failures of the schools were attributed to a general breakdown of the system, Rhee intends to demand individual accountability in measurable ways. In her two weeks officially on the job, she has begun to consolidate and clarify evaluation methods. She noted that current principals and teachers will have to earn their positions in the new system.

Rhee is aware of a certain degree of skepticism surrounding her appointment and her ability to turn around a struggling system. But she assured funders that her methods will work, and that D.C. will eventually have one of the nation’s leading school systems. That said, she does not expect blind faith, and understands that “you don’t have significant change without significant pushback.”

Before fielding questions, the Chancellor also discussed the importance of engaging parents and the community as participants in the education process, as well as the need for reforms in special education.

The Public Education Working Group is planning to meet with Rhee and Henderson on a quarterly basis to determine how the two groups can align resources to maximize and expedite change in District schools. The prospects for a revitalized school system are exciting and tangible, and one phrase that Henderson coined seems to encompass perfectly the overarching goal for the Chancellor’s team: “We must move from a culture of compliance to a culture of quality.” Washington Grantmakers is ready to help.

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l. to r.: Maxine Baker (Chair of WG Board of Directors), Carmen James Lane (Meyer Foundation, PEWG chair), Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Juanita Wade (Fannie Mae, PEWG vice-chair), Carolynn Mambu (WG Director of Public Policy)