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Class Notes
What happened to 'Children First'?
(Published September 20, 2004)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

This month, D.C. Public Schools officially hired a new superintendent on a three-year contract. School officials had better not stop there; four weeks into the school year, Eastern Senior High is without a permanent principal, having burned through six different principals in seven years.

For readers who missed it, Eastern opened a day late this year because of a foul up in student schedules over the summer -- after those responsible had assured Interim Superintendent Robert Rice that all would be well on Sept. 1. Kudos to Rice for acting quickly to dismiss staff associated with the scheduling fiasco. Yet, the work at Eastern is not yet done for incoming Superintendent Clifford Janey.

Eastern Senior High School has a special place in my heart. I taught there from 2001 to 2003, and I have strong relationships with many of the students, several of whom left Eastern and scattered across the city in search of a good high school education. It’s these kids who are bearing the brunt of our unwillingness to properly address the problems of Eastern -- not to mention those at Spingarn, Woodson, Anacostia and Ballou.

Frankly, I don’t really know Norman Smith, the principal who was just fired at Eastern, but from reading the news stories, he probably needed to go. I do know that there are some good teachers at Eastern. They deserve some stability and professionalism in their administration. There are also, as in every DCPS school (and probably a bit more at Eastern than most), teachers who aren’t helping kids as much as they could, or should. And even though I’m friends with many of the staff at Eastern, I really don’t fret for them. They’re adults, they work in the system, they know what DCPS is like. If they want, there are always jobs for teachers in other schools across the city or in Prince George's, Montgomery or Fairfax counties.

The most important thing about the annual hijinks at Eastern is that it is the kids who are being messed about. And I say "annual" because wacky stuff has been happening every year. Last year, as I read about the catastrophies at Ballou, my constant thought was "it is only by the grace of god that it didn’t happen at Eastern."

Let’s go back in time for bit. Eastern staff and alumni always talk about Ralph Neal and the fine job he did leading Eastern as principal. Neal left in 1997 to become an assistant superintendent. In 1998, Dewey Reeves was the first of our short-time men. In 2000, Jerome Shelton took over for a two-year tenure that saw test scores lurch from poor to abysmal. In 2002, Shelton was replaced by Louis Sheppard, who lasted just the year before being cashiered. The latest victim, Norman Smith, lasted one year and a day. A string of unsuccess like this makes me wonder if it’s deliberate!

Eastern used to be one of the largest schools in the system. It sits on prime real estate opposite Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and in the expanding heart of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It should be a high-profile school, an important post or, as the motto says, "The Pride of Capitol Hill." Instead, DCPS hires candidates who’ve never been principal of a comparable school, or "educational leaders" who serve their terms embedded in their office and not in the hall, let alone in the classrooms. In my two years at Eastern, I never had a formal teaching observation.

When vacancies occur (or are created as the system fires the latest principal for alleged incompetence), experienced and talented assistant principals are allowed to retire rather than be promoted to run the school. Last year, rather than find an experienced assistant principal, the system grabbed an Eastern teacher and crowned him assistant principal. Now that he’s quit, former "Dr." (as in fake Ph.D.) Wilma Durham gets re-assigned from Walker-Jones Elementary to Eastern, proving that Eastern is indeed the DCPS dumping ground for frauds and hacks. I know my language might be strong. I don’t mean to offend unnecessarily, but what is being done to the kids of Eastern is as offensive as anything I can think of.

Most of my kids at Eastern came from neighborhoods like the Benning Road corridor near the Shrimp Boat or Barry Farms, Potomac Gardens or Trinidad. These neighborhoods can be tough, but the kids are every bit as smart and every bit as deserving as the kids in Tenleytown or Chevy Chase. Eastern, and our other very worst high schools, are their neighborhood schools. Typically, their parents don’t have the money to choose a private school. If we keep up this run at Eastern, at the end of their educational career they’ll have little knowledge and even fewer choices.

Here’s the action plan: Find a strong principal, put her at Eastern, keep her there for a few years. Give Eastern the scrutiny it deserves. Hold the staff accountable: not by firing them, but by visiting the school often, suggesting changes and providing support. Allow teachers to focus on teaching by keeping the halls calm – one week last year there were six malicious fire alarms at Eastern.

Alarm bells should indeed be ringing, but of a different kind when a school that once had 2,000 kids enrolled is down to fewer than 1,000. I refuse to believe that we are incapable of improving what should be a great school, and I won’t give up on Eastern’s kids.

Superintendent Janey, good luck -- and let’s get started.

***

Wennersten is a third-year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural Senior High School and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program. Contact him at mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator