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Students know this instinctively. Acquirra Carter, 14, attends Washington's Cardozo High School, where, she complains, kids walk out of classes when they get bored and certain teachers talk on their cell phones when they are supposed to be teaching. But there are exceptions, and Carter knows them when she sees them. "Some teachers find a way. Mrs. Brown, they would not dare walk out of her class. She has total control. Mrs. Lawton, nobody leaves her class. This boy whispered, and she knew it!"
Minefields in the Schoolyard
IN THE VIEW OF RHEE AND REFORMERS like her, the struggle to fix America's failing school system comes down to a simple question: How do you get the best teachers and principals to work in the worst schools? In her quest to figure this out, Rhee has already suffered a major setback. Earlier this year, she proposed a revolutionary new model to let teachers choose between two pay scales. They could make up to $130,000 in merit pay on the basis of their effectiveness--in exchange for giving up tenure for one year. Or they could keep tenure and accept a smaller raise. (Currently, the average teacher's salary in Washington is $65,902.) The proposal divided the city's teachers into raging, blogging factions. This fall, the union declined to put Rhee's proposal to a vote, and its relationship with her has become increasingly hostile.
In October, Rhee vowed to purge incompetent teachers through any means necessary. She has brought on extra staff to help principals navigate the byzantine termination process and says an unprecedented number of teachers have already been put on notice. But she cannot give teachers the huge raises she proposed unless the union agrees to a new contract. So this approach will be slower, more litigious and less inspiring. In other words, it will be all stick and no carrot. It's hard to say if anyone else would have been able to persuade the union to trade away tenure for cash bonuses, but Rhee's sometimes dismissive attitude made it harder for some teachers to trust her.
For now, Mayor Fenty says he still has full confidence in Rhee, and he claims that Washington residents share his enthusiasm. "Regular people love the fact that for once someone is making tough decisions for D.C. schools," says Fenty, who attended the district's public schools. But the disconnect between Rhee's confident, sweeping rhetoric and the tortured reality is sizable, and it is most apparent at ground level, in the schools she is trying to save.
Rhee likes to tell the story of how Rhodes got in touch with her. She recounted it on TV on The Charlie Rose Show in July: "A student sent me this e-mail and said, basically, If you really want to know what's wrong with our schools, you should come and talk to the kids because I'm afraid that by talking to the adults, you might not be getting the real story."
Rhodes has a more nuanced version of the story. After their initial meeting, they met for a second time at Anacostia High, in a room off the library. Rhodes had invited eight fellow students, and they gave Rhee their typed agenda. They talked about the need for better teachers, as Rhee emphasizes when she tells the story. But Rhodes says he also told her about the holes in the floors, the lack of supplies and the fact that most classes did not have enough books for the students to take home. Rhee listened but did not offer many specific solutions. "She was vague," Rhodes says. "I got the sense she didn't want to make promises she couldn't keep."
Then one day last May, Rhee dismissed Anacostia's principal. Rhodes was devastated. He sent Rhee a furious e-mail. "My principal is a mother, mentor and a teacher to us all," he wrote. "I refuse, NO! we refuse the students of Anacostia to let her go." Rhee wrote him back. "She told me not to worry about it," Rhodes says quietly.
One of the things that make school reform so wrenching and slow is that schools become embedded in people's hearts. This is true in rich neighborhoods and poor ones, with good schools and bad. Rhodes talks about his school as if it were an extension of himself. He talks about "my teachers" and "my staff," and he refers to other students as "my colleagues." "I love Anacostia High School," he says. At the same time, he is dismayed by his school. He walks through his halls, pointing out the litter on the floor and the broken lockers. Rhodes is 6 ft. 8 in. (2 m) tall, so he has to look down to talk to almost everyone. He wears white tube socks under his black Nike flip-flops and carries his large frame deliberately, like a gentle overseer. "You see all these lockers? None of them work," he says. "This classroom over here is supposed to be for home economics, but it's never been fixed up."
Rhodes did not contact Rhee again. This year Anacostia has a new principal, and Rhodes admits that the school is functioning better. "All the children are wearing their uniforms," he says. "No kids are in the hallways." If you come to school without your uniform on, a security guard or an assistant principal will "snatch you up and just send you home." All the computers in his Microsoft Word classroom now work.
But on Nov. 19, Rhodes had to evacuate his school when fights broke out in the hallways and three students were stabbed. And he still doesn't use the school bathrooms, which are filthy and sometimes unsafe. He waits until he returns to his grandmother's house, where he lives.
Now that he is a senior, Rhodes spends much of his time worrying about getting into college. As we stand on the front steps of the school one autumn evening after class, I ask him what he wants to study. He answers quickly: "Public administration, with a minor in English." I ask him how he can be so sure. "Because someone told me that's what I have to do to take Chancellor Rhee's job," he says matter-of-factly, watching his drum corps practice and his baton twirlers twirl in the twilight.