Rhee's Selection as Schools Chief, a Shock to Many, Draws Scrutiny
By David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 13, 2007; A01
District leaders stood beside Michelle A. Rhee on the steps of city hall yesterday as a show of public support for the newly nominated D.C. schools chancellor, but they complained behind the scenes about the secrecy with which Mayor Adrian M. Fenty made his surprise selection.
On the morning he took direct control of the public schools, Fenty (D) officially introduced Rhee, 37, as his choice to lead the 55,000-student system, and city officials said they were hopeful and would work with her to accelerate educational improvement. But Fenty did not inform the council of his choice until the eve of the announcement and did not give her name to a panel of parents, teachers and students as the takeover legislation required. Fenty, however, said he had complied with the law.
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) pledged to hold confirmation hearings on Rhee's nomination quickly. George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said he has a good relationship with Rhee from her previous post as chief executive of the nonprofit New Teacher Project. And Robert C. Bobb, head of the new State Board of Education, praised her management skills, although others raised questions about her lack of experience operating large organizations.
Rhee vowed to work tirelessly, calling on one more group of key stakeholders -- students -- to join her.
"You are the folks I am ultimately accountable to," Rhee said at a morning news conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building attended by her parents and two young daughters. "To go from where we are now to where we need to be will take tremendous work. Get ready to work hard but get stronger, to be pushed but also to excel. Every day, my pledge is to make decisions with the unwavering confidence that you can do this. My job will be to ensure nothing stands in your way."
Rhee wasted little time making her mark, appointing Kaya Henderson, a vice president at the New Teacher Project, as her deputy. At the same time, two of departing superintendent Clifford B. Janey's top deputies, Peter Parham, chief of staff, and Robert C. Rice, special assistant, resigned.
Yet even as Fenty and Rhee made the rounds yesterday -- they stopped by the school system headquarters on North Capitol Street, then toured Benning Elementary School in Northeast -- council members, parents and school employees were scrambling to learn more about their new schools chief.
Rhee and the New Teacher Project, which recruits and trains teachers to serve in urban districts, are well known in education circles. The organization has two contracts with the D.C. school system totaling $980,000. But Fenty's selection of Rhee came as a shock to most.
Fenty conducted his search furtively, talking to education experts in other cities and rarely consulting with local officials or parents. He had interviewed Rhee at city hall a few weeks ago, but no council members knew of Fenty's interest in her until they both showed up at Gray's office about 11:30 Monday night.
"There he was with Ms. Rhee," Gray said. "He gave me her name but didn't give me a context."
The three sat down, and Fenty introduced her as the next chancellor of public schools. Gray's reaction? "She hasn't had a vast amount of management experience," he said. "There will be a wait-and-see period."
Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said in an interview that Fenty talks to "everybody except council members" and warned that he will cast a sharp eye on Rhee's background during her confirmation hearing.
The rest of the council first met her yesterday morning about half an hour before the news conference, and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was caught so off guard that he forgot her name. "I've been calling her Helen all day," he said.
Janey, the superintendent whom Rhee would replace, learned late Monday that he was being fired. Parents and hard-core school activists were floored by the news.
"We've had six or seven new superintendents over the past 10 years, and every one of them were interviewed by a panel of community members," said Cherita Whiting, a parent activist. "The mayor denied us that."
The takeover legislation approved by the D.C. Council, which transferred power from the school board to Fenty, stated that the mayor was required to convene a panel of parents, students and teachers union members to help vet the selection.
Fenty, who came under similar criticism for being too secretive about his selection of Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, said he considered roughly 30 potential candidates before settling on Rhee. His aides added that the mayor complied with the takeover legislation by convening a panel that included six people, including Terry Goings, a parent at Coolidge Senior High School.
Goings, who supports Rhee, said yesterday that the panel met once, spoke about the qualities Fenty should look for in a schools chief and did not hear about Rhee until the announcement. They received her résumé yesterday.
Lee Glazer, co-founder of the Save Our Schools coalition, was more startled by the choice than the timing of the decision. "I'm surprised at the individual because she's a nobody with no experience in education," Glazer said.
For the most part, however, parents and public officials said they are willing to support Rhee and give her a chance, even as they acknowledge some doubts about her ability to manage the 11,500-employee school bureaucracy. In selecting Rhee, whose experience working within a school system is limited to three years as a teacher in Baltimore, Fenty bucked tradition. Instead, he followed a trend that began several years ago of big-city mayors naming school chiefs who have not had superintendent experience, education experts said.
Fenty said he was looking for a leader who could offer fresh ideas.
Vanessa Gerideau, a fourth-grade teacher at Benning Elementary, spoke with Rhee during her tour and was excited to learn that they had something in common: Both had participated in the Teach for America program.
"Change needs to happen," said Gerideau, a second-year teacher. She said that she feels supported by her principal and colleagues but that the school system needs to do more for teachers.
Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said some of his constituents are concerned with Rhee's ethnic background. As a Korean American, Rhee will be the first non-black chief in four decades in the predominantly African American school district.
"Those are the first obvious things people are going to ask. Can you deal with the African American children in our system?" Thomas said.
But he said his answer, for now, is that she appears to care about all children. "We all want the same basic things for our children," Thomas added. "She's a mother. That's a good thing. She said she is going to put her children in our schools. That's a better thing. She's putting her own sweat equity in this."
Rhee's longtime allies predicted that she would overcome any doubts.
"What you see in Michelle is constant processing and understanding what's going on and how to do it better," said Kati Haycock, chairman of the New Teacher Project's board of directors. "She wants to get to what's important -- the bottom line. And the bottom line is getting really good teachers for kids. On that kind of focus, she's relentless."
Staff writers Ashlee Clark, Theola Labbé and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.