Last Friday night, Chancellor Michelle Rhee came before the Hardy School PTA to announce significant changes to the school. As described earlier, this meeting came as a culmination of months of speculation and recriminations regarding the present and future states of the school.
The meeting was led by Hardy parent Keenan Keller. He began the meeting by setting out the ground rules of three minutes for questions and three minutes for answers. Before handing the microphone to Rhee, Keller read an email off of his phone that was sent from Hyde-Addison principal Dana Nerenberg describing her new role as principal of Hyde-Addison and Hardy. The email was apparently sent around 5:00 that night to the Hyde-Addison community. Thus before Rhee even took the microphone, the audience already knew that Patrick Pope was not going to remain as principal of Hardy School after this year.
Rhee began her remarks by stating that Hardy’s arts integration program is a model both for the city and the nation. She further stated that not withstanding any personnel changes at Hardy, the arts program will remain. She then segued into announcing that a new performing arts magnet school would be created and that Patrick Pope was offered the position to design, plan, implement and lead the new school. He will remain principal through this school year. Next year Dana Nerenberg would take over the principal function of Hardy on top of her responsibilities at Hyde-Addison. Patrick Pope would then take a year to create the new school. While implied, it was not 100% clear that he will actually be the principal of the new school when it opens in 2012.
This announcement was not taken well. It was followed by an hour and a half of questions/comments from the audience passionately objecting to both the process and substance of the decision. Here is a recording of the meeting, starting just as Rhee started talking and lasting as long as GM’s batteries held out:
The comments covered a broad range of arguments against the process and substance of the decision, but for the most part they boil down to these essential points:
- Despite what Rhee was saying, her offer to Pope was an ultimatum: take this new job or I’ll simply fire you from your current one.
- Hardy is a magnet school.
- Rhee is making these changes to push out minority students in order to satisfy local white parents.
- The only reason the local parents now looked favorably on Hardy is because of the beautiful renovations to the building and the need to consider public school as a result of the recession.
- Rhee only considered the input of local parents in making this decision.
Do these points have merit? In GM’s opinion, the answer is a mix of yes and no.
Was the offer an ultimatum?
Rhee toed a careful line. She repeated over and over that Pope was offered the position and that he accepted. She denied that he was being forced out and asserted that if he were not an effective principal, she would not have put him in a new school.
While Pope was in the front row for the entire Q & A session, he did not speak. Once Rhee left, he stood and gave an emotional speech in praise of the school and his time there, but did not clarify the question of whether he was forced out or not. In GM’s opinion, his decision not to speak up during Rhee’s speech and his decision not to discuss the new magnet school when he did speak strongly implies, at the very least, that he is not enthusiastic about the change. Would he really take a position that he’s not enthusiastic about if he thought he had a choice? It seems unlikely.
Is Hardy a Magnet School?
The simple answer is no, it is not a magnet school. First of all, DCPS does not traditionally use the term “magnet school.” It refers to some schools as “specialized schools.” Specialized schools are those schools that require students to meet some precondition to attend the school and where no children have a right to enroll based solely on their residency.
With one glaring exception, Hardy has never been listed among the specialized schools. In fact, in February 2008, the Brookings Institute issued a report bemoaning the lack of a single specialized middle school in DC’s public schools (although that report indicates that “Hardy [was] exploring a themed art focus”).
While Mr. Pope integrated an application into the admissions process, the process to apply to Hardy was still contained within the out-of-boundary process (note that that webpage indicates a different process for students applying for “selective citywide high schools.”) Students from the Hardy district had a right to attend Hardy without going through the out-of-boundary process. By definition, that makes it a neighborhood school.
What’s the glaring exception? On the school profile for Hardy the following information appears:
From this profile, it would be hard not to conclude that Hardy is a specialized school. Moreover, Hardy’s own website makes no mention of a local student’s right to attend the school without going through the lottery process (in fact, the website makes it seem as if the lottery has nothing to do with admission to Hardy, which as far as GM can tell is not true.)
So considering these exceptions, is Hardy really a neighborhood school after all? In GM’s opinion, it appears that Hardy was never technically a specialized school. This is true because there never has been a time when local students had to go through the out-of-boundary process to attend Hardy. But it also seems as if Hardy became at some point a ”quasi-specialized” school through the efforts of Mr. Pope. It was like any other neighborhood school except that you were requested to complete an application to attend (notice that in this link, Hardy is singled out from among all schools for being unique in this fashion.)
The central question that GM has not yet answered is whether an out-of-boundary student could attend Hardy without completing the application. Does anyone know for certain that a student who won the out-of-boundary lottery for Hardy but simply refused to complete the application would be barred from attending the school? GM suspects the answer is no, but that in the interests of attracting only engaged students the Hardy leadership preferred to leave the impression that the answer is yes.
Rhee Is Making these Changes to Push Out Minority Students in Order to Satisfy Local White Parents
The fact is that removing Principal Pope is not going to instantly lead to a flood of new local students attending Hardy. And until more local children choose to attend Hardy, there will still be plenty of out-of-boundary slots at the school that must be filled. Thus, for the foreseeable future Hardy will continue to teach primarily out-of-boundary students who are almost entirely African-American or Hispanic. Moreover, all the rules of sibling rights and destination schools (i.e., if you attend Hyde-Addison out-of-boundary you have a right to attend Hardy) will continue to apply.
However, it seems likely that as a general matter Rhee would like to see more local children attending their local middle schools instead of private schools. In Hardy’s case, this would inherently mean fewer slots for out-of-boundary children. So to the extent that Rhee is making this change to attract more in-boundary children it will necessarily mean “pushing out” some minority students. Is this “pushing out” the side-effect of a legitimate objective (namely increasing DCPS enrollment) or is it the objective itself? How you answer that question probably determines how you view this entire matter.
The Only Reason Local Parents Care About Hardy Now is Because of the Renovations and the Recession
This is impossible to know for certain. Everyone has their own reasons for what school they choose for their children. It’s undoubtedly the case that Hardy’s beautiful renovations make it much more attractive to local parents. Moreover, the recession plus the ever increasing cost of private school surely are pressuring parents into considering public schools.
But in GM’s opinion the reasons are likely broader than that. Many suspect a baby-boom (although GM has yet to see hard statistics to support that). Another reason may be that success merely builds on success. In other words, more and more parents see success at the feeder school-level and would like to see that success continue at the middle school-level. But from speaking with parents of Hardy feeder-schools, the story is pretty consistent: they believe that Pope is not interested in Hardy being anything but a specialized school. Is that justified? GM can’t say.
Rhee Only Considered the Input of the Feeder School Parents in Making Her Decision
This seems indisputably true. Rhee met with a group of Key parents last February. In August, one of her aids met with the same group. In October she promised CAG “exciting changes” at Hardy that would hopefully lead to more in-boundary parents considering Hardy as an option. It does not appear that at anytime before Friday did she meet with Hardy parents. In fact, on two occasions Rhee’s aids misrepresented the plans to parties concerned on behalf of Hardy parents, including the Washington Area NAACP. Even if you agree with Rhee’s decision, you must admit this is not the right way to go about making a change.
There are so many more complicated and sensitive issues involved with this situation than could be addressed in even an overly long article like this one.
While many would disagree over a lot of these issues, what almost everyone would agree on is that the entire matter was not well handled. Rhee appears not to have reached out to the current Hardy population for input. She admitted that her aids intentionally mislead people. And she is putting Dana Nerenberg in an almost impossible situation. In GM’s opinion, it should not have happened this way.