Looking at D.C. education reform from the inside
By Joseph Hornig
The Academies at Anacostia, formally known as Anacostia High School, has undergone many changes in an effort to shed its reputation as one of the worst schools in Washington, D.C. Over the years the school has struggled with violence, low test scores, poor attendance, and dismal graduation rates. In 2009, only about 50 percent of students graduated, according to The Washington Post, and only 17 percent of the students were proficient in math and 18 percent met the mark in reading.
In 2009, former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee transferred management of Anacostia High School to Friendship Public Charter Schools. The school was renamed and split into four different academies: two 9-10th grade academies (Sojourner Truth and Charles Drew), an 11-12th grade academy (Frederick Douglass), and an academy for under-credited and overage students (Matthew Henson). In June 2010, The Washington Post reported that 79 percent of Anacostia seniors received their diplomas, and of those, 95 percent were accepted to college.
During her tenure as Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, Rhee earned a reputation for being tough and aggressive in her approach to school reform, and it turned off many city residents – particularly those living in predominantly black Southeast D.C.. In 2009, the D.C. school system hired more than 900 new, mostly inexperienced, mostly white teachers and dismissed more than 250 veteran teachers who were mostly black and mostly teacher’s union members, according to The Final Call.
“A lot of good teachers got laid off for what I think no apparent good reason,” said Marie Phelps, a resident of Anacostia who had two children graduate from Anacostia High School.
“A lot of the teachers that had gotten fired were teachers that had been there for a long time,” she said. “The teachers that are coming in now, they’re young, and not to take anything away from them, but when you have someone who’s been a teacher basically all their life, you’re looking at more experience than anything else.”
In January 2010, The Washington Post conducted a poll that revealed D.C. residents had nearly reversed their opinion of Rhee. The poll found that 54 percent of parents with children in D.C. public schools disapproved of Rhee, when in 2008, 54 percent of those parents approved of her. The drop in approval rating mirrored public sentiment for former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed Rhee in 2007. In November 2010, voters expressed their dissatisfaction at the polls, and decisively voted for Vincent Gray in the Democratic Primary for Mayor of the District of Columbia. Gray received 80 percent of the vote in Wards 7 and 8, which are located in the Southeast quadrant of the city and includes Anacostia.
While Southeast D.C. residents were particularly critical of Rhee’s decision to fire many public school teachers and principals, the students attending the Academies at Anacostia feel very differently. Melanie McKie said there is no comparison between the new teachers and the ones who were fired.
“The previous teachers strictly taught us out of the textbook, and sometimes it’s hard for students to learn out of a textbook,” McKie said.
“If you have a teacher who presents material to you in a new way, a way you can understand it, it makes you actually want to come to school more. Since we got the new teachers our attendance went up. We have students who never wore a uniform a day in their life, now you see our whole student body in uniform,” McKie said.
Sarah Lehar, a 12th-grade social studies teacher, said that even though many of the new teachers are young, and were certified through programs such as Teach For America – hence they don’t tend to have a background in education – they have brought a level of energy that was previously lacking in the school.
“We bring in certain skills and knowledge and focus on helping them figure out what they want to do with their lives,” Lehar said.
McKie said she likes that her new teachers are young and relatable. “A lot of the new teachers just graduated, so they can answer any questions about applying to college or your personal statement.”
They are also more accessible, she said. “They’re always there, their door is always open. I had a teacher who paid for one of my application fees. It just shows that they care.”
Daneya Taylor said that the teachers at Anacostia are committed to their job and make sure that students leave the school with a good head on their shoulders.
“These teachers actually want you to pass their classes no matter how long it takes,” said Taylor. “They’ll stay in school til 7 or 8 o’clock for extra help and they actually give you their number so you can call them if you need any help with anything. There are a lot of teachers at other schools who don’t even do that. I’m thankful for all my teachers.”
Antoine Douglas agreed. “I’ve grown attached to the teachers because they make it their business to help us,” he said. “They’ll miss their (graduate) classes to come out to one of our games or events just to show their support and that they care. That means a lot to us.”
Lehar, the teacher, said she supports weeding out ineffective teachers, “especially when the students are with us for a majority of their day.”
She would expect to be held to the same high standards. “If the principal comes into class and sees that I’m not doing a good job, I want him to fire me. Our job is too important.”
Lehar acknowledges that as a young teacher who is not providing for a family, it’s easier for her to talk – even hypothetically – about getting fired than for older faculty members, like the ones who lost their jobs in the Rhee-initiated shakeup.
“But I work for my students, and I work to make sure they will be successful. There shouldn’t be any other reason you get into this profession.”
Neither D.C. Public Schools nor the Washington Teacher’s Union returned requests for comment.
Stanley Diggs said that students were shocked and scared when they found out many of their teachers had been fired.
“We were like, OK, new teachers are going to come, how is it going to be? Are people just going to run over them?” Diggs said.
“But when they came, they came with that assertiveness to get ready to actually teach and not just fall back scared. So they actually did a very good job and I’m proud of all my teachers.”
Besides the new teaching staff, another significant change at the Academies of Anacostia has been an increase in rule enforcement and disciplinary action.
“The school is more strict than when we first got here, but the same rules applied then as now except you get more discipline if you don’t follow the rules,” Taylor said.
“The increased disciplinary action is needed and necessary to properly prepare young adults for the real world and that there are consequences for their actions,” said Nia Nicholas, Dean of Academics for the Frederick Douglass academy.
“I visited the school before I started as a teacher and it was like a party,” Lehar said. “There were no uniforms, students were in the halls during class, and not every single student was being held to high standards.”
“This year we are enforcing the rules more tightly but we are also explaining the importance of the rules,” she said. “My students understand that they have to wear a uniform and be on time because when they leave here they will be expected to show up on time to work wearing a tie.”
Last year, she said, she often started class until 15 minutes late because of latecomers. Now, she locks her door when class starts.
Not all the students appreciate the increased discipline, however, and some find that it inhibits them from learning.
“When we come late, they don’t let us in the building,” said James Lorenzo Beckham, a junior who said he was suspended for standing near a fight. “Kids catch the bus to school. People be late and they send us right back home. They need to let us in the building so we can get our work done.”
Student opinion is split on the issue – some feel that there needs to be more rule enforcement, while others believe the strict environment is necessary.
“All the kids do in the classroom is play, cuss the teacher out, or don’t listen,” said Shytasha McMan. “The people who actually want to learn don’t get to learn anything because they’re being disturbed by the other students.”
Stanley Diggs, the student who said he was apprehensive of the new teachers at first, said he’s undergone a transformation himself since coming to Anacostia.
“When I first started my freshmen year, I went to IDEA Public Charter High School, and I actually got kicked out of there,” he said.
“So Anacostia took me in and it was a lot more stricter than I was used to, but I actually learned a lot more and I was able to gain more friends and more confidence in myself through this school.”