Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Superintendent Janey Address Charter School Leaders 

Last evening F.O.C.U.S. and the D.C. Charter School Alliance co-hosted a discussion with new D.C. school Superintendent Clifford Janey. There were about 30 representatives from the City's 42 charter schools sitting around a table, where for about an hour and a half Dr. Janey fielded questions from the group. I represented WEDJ PCS.

I have to say I was impressed on a personal level with Dr. Janey. His goal seemed to be to soften the divide between charters and traditional D.C. schools. Most of the comments, not unexpectedly, centered around how charters could be brought into the decision making process regarding policies that effect all schools. For example, my understanding is that one issue which is still up in the air is which standardized test will be used in the spring to access student progress. Dr. Janey said that the selection is about two to four weeks away and it was clear to me from what the participants said that he favors the Stanford-9.

It turns out that the Superintendent runs a monthly leadership meeting centered around sharing best practices for obtaining specific results. This gathering has involved almost exclusively representatives from traditional schools but Dr. Janey made it quite clear that charter schools should attend. In fact, others stated that charters have been invited since August of this year but have not been showing up. There was general agreeement from almost everyone that they were unaware of these sessions and a action plan was developed for improving communication about them.

Of course, facilities is the main obstacle for charter schools and many people brought it up. Some asked Dr. Janey to mandate that schools search for ways to incorporate charters into their buildings if extra space exists. The Superintendent was direct in saying that this was not his style and that the most important first step in working together was to improve the relationship between charters and the public school system. He said once progress has been made in this area then other goals of this group would be possible to achieve.

As I sat there listening to a frank and open conversation with these education leaders I felt a strange uneasiness. Everyone was trying to be polite and professional in an effort to begin our working together on a high note. But I was frustrated. We have an educational crises in our nation's capital and I could not detect one person, especially the Superintendent, being passionate about their mission. So finally, I had the opportunity to ask the final question of the evening.

I said that the charter school movement was about much more than providing competition to traditional schools so that students would have alternative choices for their education. The aim, I stated, was also to improve traditional schools through pressures of the market-place. So I asked him how he felt personally when a parent told him that they were putting their kids on a bus or the subway because the neighborhood school was not meeting their expectations for teaching their children. He refused to answer and called my question "rhetorical."

So I guess this exchange summarizes my impression of the meeting and the man. He is extremely nice and makes others feel immediately at ease. Once the event was over the Superintend spent considerable time just hanging out and speaking with people on an individual basis. Someone said they were from Boston as he apparently is, and he used a four letter word to comment on the high price of purchasing parking spaces in the City. He joked with me about my question.

But it was no joke. I was looking for a clue that he would have the courage and fortitude to be able to shake up a system that is fundamentally dysfunctional. I didn't find it.

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