Rhee says that recruiting whites purely to bolster test scores doesn’t serve her long-term strategy: “If what we’ve done in five years is to grow the enrollment and diversify the enrollment and brought the achievement levels up, but [when] we look at low-income black kids’ scores, they are no different than when I got here, than I would say I have failed,” she says.
She has made test scores one of the hallmarks of her administration, gaining national attention for the jump in student achievement thus far in her tenure. As the decline in this year’s scores demonstrates, sustaining the big growth is more complicated than average citizens realize.
Rhee can continue to grind out small percentage increases over the next several years by doing what she already says she’s doing—improving the teacher corps. But, if she has her sights on being U.S. education secretary, as some of her critics and supporters have suggested, then she has to make a bigger splash, quicker. The kind of splash that comes only by importing new classes of students.
There’s one glitch, however. If a critical mass of whites is reached in DCPS, for instance, it could exacerbate the achievement gap. In 2010, the difference in reading scores between black and white elementary students in DCPS was 50.21 percent; in math, it’s 51.24, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. “There is that risk,” admits Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso. Rhee says her administration has been focusing on those differences
That’s the pessimistic view. The hike in test scores could also invite more investments, including increase in federal dollars. Those two would attract better-credentialed teachers, who often scout out high performing systems. The rippling effect could help everyone. But in a polarized election year, and in an arena like education, where progress often takes years before it’s fully realized and sustained, those potential results may be a tough case to make.
Despite the city’s racial evolution, some neighborhoods remain as segregated as they were in the 1980s. But in many communities African Americans, whites and Hispanics now live in close proximity, if not perpetual harmony. Columbia Heights, areas adjacent to the H Street NE corridor, Logan Circle and Petworth, are among the city’s many gentrifying neighborhoods. But schools there continue to be largely black. Couples like the Derlegas who live in those areas are easy and natural targets for Rhee’s recruitment.
Reinoso argues that school leaders must begin to behave like marketing executives, understanding the needs of current parents, while anticipating those of future parents and inviting participation of those residents without children.
“If we have a neighborhood [based] school system, then the neighborhood school needs to be engaged in its neighborhood,” he continued, citing diaper companies as examples of what DCPS should do. “When we know there has been a child born, we can start sending post cards, telling parents when it comes time to choose a school we hope they will give DCPS a chance, and then we follow up…We should be trying to capture the market share in every neighborhood.”
The market share includes those white families in Palisades. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans says with Hyde-Addison and Key elementary schools and changes at Hardy Middle School, the only thing missing for the area is a “full purpose high school. Then we would have a whole network.”
But what happens, asks Miles-Crocker, “when you don’t have a neighborhood school?”
And that’s really the skunk at Rhee’s recruitment party. As a practical matter, she can’t just herd whites. She also has to provide good schools for African Americans, and will face especially tough scrutiny from black parents like Miles-Crocker who’ve worked hard to get their kids in out-of-boundary slots in better-regarded schools in heavily white neighborhoods—the very slots that would grow scarce if those schools repopulated with residents from nearby communities.
In the past, many whites who would have occupied those schools either fled the city or the public schools, as Wells and Toyer noted. But they are back. Don’t they have the same rights as African Americans to the schools in their communities? Shouldn’t they be invited, encouraged even to attend those institutions?
Rhee’s response has been an unequivocal yes. But the politics of that answer are dangerous. “Whites around Hardy said they wanted to go there. She said all right I’ll just move the blacks out. That’s separate but equal. You can’t do that,” one high-placed government official who requested anonymity says criticizing the chancellor.
Cherita Whiting, the head of the Ward 4 Education Council, calls herself “a personal friend” of the chancellor. They often have private conversations and she’s even taken Rhee’s two daughters to Chuck E. Cheese. While she likes the direction of DCPS reforms, she has disagreed with Rhee’s approach—from firing teachers to moving Pope. “[But] I don’t see anything racial with Michelle,” Whiting adds.