For years, John Derlega had looked from his window at the rusting façade of William Lloyd Garrison Elementary School on S Street NW near Logan Circle. Of course, he had never entered the building. A classic D.C. young professional, Derlega lived local but focused elsewhere. Then he and his wife had a child.
The couple wanted a public education for their daughter. But the District of Columbia Public Schools had a reputation for being a dreadful system with just a few exceptions. So they went looking for those exceptions and researching charter schools. “We began by going to open houses. We went to Ross [Elementary School] and Capital City Charter School,” says Derlega, 37, who is white and works as a nonprofit fundraising executive. “My wife made contact with the principal at Ross; I made contact with Capital City.”
And the DCPS made contact right back in a rather surprising way: The couple received an e-mail from Chancellor Michelle Rhee. “We were blown away to get direct e-mails from her,” Derlega says.
Mona Sehgal also received the chancellor’s attention. While the 17-year Foggy Bottom resident frequently passed Francis Junior High School near 24th and N streets NW, she never went in. But after she married and had her first child, she was scouting schools in neighborhoods she’d “never visited before” and entering the city’s lottery for out-of-boundary schools.
Meanwhile, Francis morphed into the Francis-Stevens Education Campus, with a pre-K through 8th grade academic program. She attended an open house where she met the principal and Rhee. “I told them if they put a class for three-year olds there, I would consider the school,” says Sehgal, 42, who is of Indian heritage. While Seghal was off exploring distant options, DCPS created just such a program at Francis-Stevens.
“When I saw the notice, I said, wait, this is what I asked for,” says Sehgal. She and her husband, who is white, recruited other families, ending up with 30—enough for two pre-school classes. “And, for the 2011-2012 school year, we already have four or five new neighborhood families interested in the school.”
Much of what you read about Rhee these days involves her often acrimonious combat with mobilized politicians and unionized teachers. But over the past two years, the battle-hardened schools chief has simultaneously been on a charm offensive, having tea with new parents, drafting e-mails to school-hunting moms and dads, and otherwise recruiting folks who might previously have shunned DCPS. And the most conspicuous targets of that wooing are ones from the demographic that include Sehgal and Derlega: affluent, educated, and disproportionately white.
Rhee rejects the notion she’s focused on any particular group. Most of her career, she says, has been spent addressing the needs of poor African-American children. “If we can make sure our children in Anacostia are getting a great education, then we will be able to shatter all the excuses people have about poor children not being able to perform,” she says.
Indeed, much of her role as DCPS’ chief marketer has involved spreading the word about good schools beyond the handful of historically excellent Upper Northwest elementary schools. “What’s in people’s heads is that there are these six schools that are good. Everybody knows them. But increasingly, there now are some really solid schools—Barnard Elementary, J.O. Wilson [for example]—that are these gems.”
DCPS has developed compelling programs and enhanced school-based leadership at “recruitment schools” like Francis-Stevens, she says. Those are poised to “turn the corner.” Not unlike Ross, “Francis-Stevens can also become a school that has a lot of demand, if we do things right.” Rhee says DCPS has been conducting “strong outreach to families. I am trying to woo everybody back—not just white people.”
Still, a glance at the places where Rhee believes her luring of parents could make a difference in school enrollment suggests a certain type of community is front and center: Gentrified locales where demographics have shifted because of the influx of people like the Derlegas and Sehgal—but where neighborhood schools remain overwhelmingly African American, inconsistent with the new diversity.
Rhee’s campaign has included bus advertisements, radio spots, e-mails, conference calls, private meetings in the homes of current or potential DCPS parents, and pep-rally-style sessions at schools including Francis-Stevens. There, she didn’t appeal to parents’ liberal guilt but urged them to choose the school that would best educate their child.
“Not all of you are going to make that decision this year; some of you will and every year the number is going to grow and grow,” she told them. She’s certain a few years ago, the folks attending that meeting “would never think of sending their kids to DCPS.”
And just who was in that group?
“It was mixed,” says Rhee. “But I would say the group was predominantly white.”
It appears DCPS’ leadership is engaged in a real-time experiment to see whether it’s possible to integrate a school system by reaching out to a group that has traditionally rejected it as an option. They are achieving some success: Between 2007 and 2010, white enrollment in DCPS increased from 6 percent to 9 percent and Hispanic enrollment increased from 11 percent to 13 percent. During that same period, African-American enrollment dropped from 80 percent to 76 percent, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
A lot of people might be uncomfortable with the experiment and its results. But the statistically complicated, politically toxic, and morally vexing question is: should they be?