Not eager to march to Rhee's drum
Chicago parents and teachers can tell the community of Rose L. Hardy Middle School what happens with "turnaround".
By Bill Turque
For much of the past decade, Rose L. Hardy Middle School has been a small gem in the District's public education system, a place where large numbers of sixth- seventh- and eighth-graders have found academic success.
Nearly three-quarters of its students are proficient in reading, according to last spring's standardized test. Its acclaimed fine arts and instrumental music program, built by longtime Principal Patrick Pope, draws students from across the city and has helped develop artists such as bassist Ben Williams, winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk jazz competition.
Hardy, a school in the heart of Georgetown, also has an enrollment that is more than 70 percent African American. An emerging debate over its future illuminates one of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's greatest challenges: to increase the diversity of the school system by drawing in more white, middle-class families without compromising the interests of its predominantly poor and minority student population.
With most middle-class children leaving the system after the fourth or fifth grade, Rhee must sell D.C.'s middle schools as an attractive option.
Rhee triggered considerable anxiety and suspicion among Hardy parents and staff members last month when she promised a Georgetown audience that she would "turn" the school in an attempt to make it more attractive to neighborhood families.
According to the Northwest Current, a community newspaper, Rhee told the Citizens Association of Georgetown on Oct. 22 that she planned a major announcement about Hardy in December. Then she added:
"It's not going to turn overnight, but I think the plan we're moving forward on is one that is really going to boost [the school as an] option. I think people will be incredibly pleased."
Hardy parents and teachers said they knew nothing about the plan and didn't like the little Rhee had to say about it. In their view, she appears poised to reinvent a successful school to accommodate a small group of privileged parents.
"If you're a civil rights lawyer and you read that, you're asking, 'Turn from what to what? Turn from who to who?" said Keenan Keller, an African American, whose daughter travels from outside the Hardy boundary area to attend seventh grade there.
In an interview Thursday, Rhee would not disclose her plans for the school, but she said the "turn" she described had nothing to do with its racial composition. "What that implies is that what is good for one group of kids is not good enough for another," she said. "I think that's not only false but incredibly harmful."
What needs to turn, she said, is the attitude of the school's leadership, which she said has not always been welcoming to neighborhood families. The school has an application process, which includes a letter of recommendation and "evidence of experience" in art, music or theater in the form of a portfolio or program from a school performance. Students also must take a 90-minute "workshop" with the school's arts and general education teachers.
That has left the misimpression, Rhee said, that Hardy is specialty school not open to the surrounding community. "We need to do a lot of clarifying," she said. "Hardy has an arts component, but you don't have to think you have the next Whitney Houston on your hands to send your kids to this school."
Pope, who declined to comment for this story, built the program under a directive from the old D.C. Board of Education to create quality programming to spur middle-school enrollment. The application process, school officials said, was designed to send the message that everyone in the school arrived on equal terms, whether they came on three buses or in an SUV.
Enrollment from the area's elementary "feeder" schools historically has been low. Many parents have chosen private, parochial and charter schools or Deal Middle School in Tenleytown, because they were not convinced of Hardy's quality, parents and educators said. Of the 135 fifth-graders who completed Stoddert, Key, Hyde and Eaton last spring, 49 are enrolled in Hardy's 177-student sixth-grade class this fall. Most of the rest come from public schools outside Hardy's attendance area, according to school data.
But with completion of a $48 million renovation last year and, perhaps, the effects of the recession, community interest has increased. And so has discussion of changes in Hardy's program.
One issue is Pope. The flinty, no-nonsense administrator is popular with teachers and has a reputation for pushing back against parents who try to assert control over school decisions. Some Hardy parents said Pope may not be seen by Rhee as the best fit for hyper-engaged Northwest elementary parents accustomed to a generous level of input.
But Hardy parents also said Pope is the school's indispensable element. "I find Hardy to be a very orderly environment, and Mr. Pope is the key to that," said Sherry Woods, who has two out-of-boundary children at Hardy. "He's not a warm and fuzzy guy, but he runs a tight ship."
Rhee declined to say whether Pope would return next year. "We're in an ongoing conversation with him, but we're not ready to make any decisions," she said.
Hardy community members said their suspicions were compounded by the minutes of a February meeting between Rhee and a dozen parents at Key, a Palisades neighborhood elementary school that is more than 70 percent white. The meeting was "spurred by the concerns of Key parents about "Life After Key -- particularly Hardy Middle School," according to the minutes.
Rhee said she is "keenly aware of the struggles parents face when deciding to stay in [D.C. public schools] for the middle school years, and whether to send their children to Hardy in particular. She said she has a strong sense that parents want to feel good about Hardy as an option," according to the minutes. Rhee said she anticipated that in three or four years, Hardy "will become a school in high demand as changes are made."
The school, which is more than 60 students over its projected enrollment of 356, already is in high demand, parents said.
"I don't understand. It makes me wonder what's going on behind the scenes," said Helen Haggerty, who has sent three kids through Hardy and is weighing whether to send a fourth, now a fifth-grader at Eaton. Paring back the arts and music program would weigh heavily on her decision, she said.
Key parents had another meeting in August with Rhee deputy Abigail Smith that reprised some of the same themes, according to the posted minutes. According to one section, headed "Composition of Student Body and Key Families," Smith reportedly said: "The Chancellor continues to feel that increases in the number of Key students who choose to attend Hardy will have a catalyzing effect on other families."
E-mailed messages to more than a dozen Key parents, members of the school's Life After Key Committee, which evaluates middle-school options, went mostly unreturned. One member, Patricia Sulser, said that race was not an issue and that there was "no uniform view" of Hardy.
"Some have really liked the arts curriculum. Others would rather have a stronger focus on traditional curriculum," Sulser said. "I don't think there's any concern with the demographics."
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