• July 2010

Part 1 in our Series: DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

At a recent event hosted in June by the DC-based publishing company Bisnow entitled, “Where Do Women Stand,” Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, Michelle Rhee, was interviewed by former journalist Stacey Jones — now a senior executive at the global management consulting and technology services company, Accenture.

Following is the first of a three-part Q&A that the publishers of Bisnow, Chancellor Rhee, and Stacey Jones graciously allowed us to share with our Be Inkandescent Magazine readers.

Michelle Rhee: On Education

Stacey Jones: What are you in charge of as Chancellor of DC schools?

Michelle Rhee: I am in charge of the day-to-day operation of 123 schools throughout the District. We have about 7,000 employees, 4,400 teachers, and 45,000 students. We do everything from making sure the kids have books in schools, to making sure that everybody gets paid, and the food. But more importantly we are in charge of making sure that every child gets an education.

Stacey Jones: You have been on the center stage of education for several years now. Great accomplishments, some big news you’ve made not just here in the District, but national now and you’ve stirred up a little controversy along the way. In fact, you were on the cover of Time Magazine (on Dec. 8, 2008). What was that like?

Michelle Rhee: It was very strange. But I think what’s great about it is that I have started a trend nationally to really highlight some of the big issues in public education today. And I think since that story, which was mainly about what’s going on in DC, how it has become the way it is, and what we can do to change it, there has been a lot of national attention overall on possible interesting things that are happening in public school reform across the country, and I think that’s an incredible thing.

Stacey Jones: What do you think the DC schools will be like in, say, five years?

Michelle Rhee: I think it will be a wildly different place in terms of public education. We would hope that by that time we are the highest performing urban school district in the country, and that we are a school district that has the faith and confidence of the citizens throughout the city. That people are choosing to send their kids to DC PS, to their neighborhood schools or to other schools, but they are making conscious choices.

A lot of young professionals ask me “are you going to fix it so I don’t have to move out of the city when I have kids?” It’s that people who are making choices between a private school and a public school are going to make that choice to benefit their kids, not because they believe that’s the only place their children can get a good education. Because that school offers something to them that they think is unique, not that that’s the only place they think they can thrive.

Particularly for our families and parents east of the river, I don’t want them to feel they need to travel west in order for their kid to get what they need everyday, that they have that available to them in a multitude of schools in their neighborhood. I actually think that that is very possible to accomplish from where we stand.

When we started three years ago we were known as the most dysfunctional and the lowest functioning school district in the nation and we still have an incredibly long way to go. Let’s be clear about this, we’re nowhere near where we need to be.

But I do think that we have some real momentum now and that people are looking up and saying “y’know what?, this might be worth investing in.” We have lots of families now who three years ago would never have thought of sending their kids to DC PS now saying okay we have to take the plunge.

Stacey Jones: Let me just start with having faith and confidence because I think those are very powerful words, especially in education and business. Those people who are making different decisions, how would you inspire their faith and confidence to send their most precious possession, their children, to your care to help guide their future?

Michelle Rhee: In many ways. One of the things that I have done in the last three years that I think is very important is personal touch. Whenever anyone emails me, any time, I will email them back and give an answer straight from my head.

I think at first that people thought it was a little ridiculous; can you really answer every single email from every single parent that comes in? They said that doesn’t seem like a good use of the superintendant’s time. But I actually disagree with that because when I get an email from a parent that says the second floor water fountain at my elementary school is not working and the next day they show up and the water fountain is fixed, it actually helps them feel like someone is listening and something is changing.

We are not going to be able to take the school district from where it is now to 100% of the kids being proficient overnight. But overnight if I can’t fix a water fountain here or there? Those are the things that are going to help people remain steadfast in their belief that the district is changing and that things can get better. So that’s one way that I think we’re doing it.

The other way is to really deeply engage with our local schools. A lot of times I’ll meet with PTAs in local schools and they’ll say “I can’t believe that you’re getting to this level, that you care about us as a school and a PTA.” I say, “Look, I only have 123 schools in this district. If I can’t pay attention to every single one of your concerns and try to come up with a solution that works for you, then we’re never going to turn this system around.”

So I think really being able to hear individual concerns and challenges and desires about what they want for their kids, in the short term before we get to that place in 5 years, can really help to build that confidence.

Stacey Jones: You recently wrote an Op-Ed in the Sunday New York Daily News and gave advice to the NY schools about how to contain and manage what they learned. You specifically list a number of sacred cows that aren’t convenient anymore; tenure not the same thing, paper performance, and all that’s going on. How do you deal with the people side of this?

Michelle Rhee: I think the most important thing that I can do right now is to be out talking to our teachers, particularly about this contract. As you probably know, a week ago they approved that contract overwhelmingly, about an 80-20 vote, which I think shocked a lot of people because we have been in this contentious negotiation for three years and a lot of us thought that there was no way these teachers are going to accept these kinds of changes.

What I think happened was that when it went to ramification the teachers showed that they are ready for a change, they are ready to embrace this and be held accountable — as long as they are also treated as the professionals that they are.

So I spend a lot of my time actually talking to teachers, like today I’m going to a teacher listening session, which I do a few times a week at lots of schools, where teachers can ask you any question they want.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE: What’s the most surprising thing Michelle Rhee hears at a session? How does she feel about collaboration and resilience? Did she ever want to throw in the towel? And why doesn’t she care if she’s liked?

Read Part 2 (of 3) from this interesting interview in the August issue of Be Inkandescent Magazine.

About Michelle Rhee

Since Time Magazine put Michelle Rhee on its cover and labeled her the most revolutionary force in American education today, she has been a national symbol of the secondary school reform movement aimed at improving the quality of teachers. Appointed by Mayor Fenty in 2007, Michelle leads a school district serving 47,000 students in 123 schools. She began her commitment to education in a Baltimore classroom as a Teach for America instructor in 1992. She then founded The New Teacher Project in 1997, a leading organization in understanding and developing innovative solutions to the challenges of new teacher hiring.

About Stacey Jones

As the Senior Director of Corporate Marketing at Accenture, Stacey drives a wide range of global corporate marketing and communications initiatives, including corporate social responsibility, inclusion and diversity, leadership and sustainability. She began her career working as a journalist in both Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois, and went on to work at Burson-Marsteller and Fleishman-Hillard, where she consulted with a range of Fortune 100 corporate clients. Prior to joining Accenture, she developed and managed Aetna’s regional public relations functions.

About Bisnow

The five-year-old media company Bisnow publishes 12 e-newsletters focused on business niches in the Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC areas that circulate to 166,000 readers. Learn more here: www.bisnow.com.

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