More Teachers Prepare to Leave Columbia Heights

On April 11, V. Dion Haynes released an article in the Washington Post about the principal of Columbia Height Educational Campus, Maria Tukeva.  Mr. Haynes refers to Ms. Tukeva as a visionary, as "tough but fair," as the type of principal who "works alongside parents and teachers, rather than using a top-down style."  The article gives the impression that Columbia Heights is the kind of school that every child should be so lucky to be a part of.  And were you to search through the Washington Post archives or almost any other major media outlet, you'd be hard pressed to find anything that would contradict that impression.  Even a cursory Google search for Columbia Heights will return multiple positive reviews from non-profits and law firms.  And indeed this praise appears to be warranted.  DCPS school profiles indicate that in 2009, CHEC's high school standardized test scores (40% proficient in reading and 48% proficient in math) were sixth highest in the District (out of seventeen), topped only by Banneker (97, 98), Ellington (77, 61), McKinley Tech (69, 70), School Without Walls (98, 94), and Wilson (72, 67).  (Although 40% proficient in reading and 48% proficient in math may not seem all that great, keep in mind that the vast majority of CHEC's student body are English language learners, many of whom recently arrived in the US.)  Additionally, the school's website boasts confidently on its homepage that CHEC is ranked first in DC and third in the metro area on the Washington Post's 2010 Challenge Index.  The Challenge Index rates schools according to what percentage of their students take college-level examinations.  Ms. Tukeva has managed to do such a phenomenal job fundraising in the community through MCIP (a non-profit attached to the school) that she's able to pay for all of the students enrolled in AP courses to take the AP exams.  (If students at CHEC choose not to take the exam, they must pay the $86 back to the school.)

All in all, the story surrounding Columbia Heights is truly extraordinary, ESPECIALLY considering the politico-social situation that bore it.  For years, Bell Multicultural High School and Lincoln Middle School were plagued by a lack of adequate facilities, an unsafe environment surrounding the campuses, and even oil and toxic fumes being dumped on and into Bell by a neighboring auto shop.  In 2006, Tukeva managed to open a new campus that combined Bell and Lincoln and marked the first built-from-scratch high school (and middle school) in the District since the 1970's, and it's gorgeous.  Anybody who's seen the classrooms, the cafeteria, the computer and language labs, and the gym shared by both the high school and middle school sides would be hard pressed to point to a nicer public school facility in the entire country.  Beyond the facility, Tukeva has pushed the faculty to hold extraordinarily high standards for themselves and their students.  The school takes pride in its model of standards-based instruction and focus on rigor, relevance, and social justice.  It's created a staff of over 100 hard-working, enthusiastic professionals who, in addition to offering traditional classroom instruction, also provide a daycare facility, a parent-outreach program, and opportunities for internships with local organizations throughout the community.

What I've learned fairly quickly about education in the District, however, is that although many of the feel-good stories reported by the Washington Post are based largely on facts, there are lots and lots of not-so-positive stories that are not being told, most of which can be woven into an enormous, almost entirely unpublicized narrative about a district so consumed with effecting political change and raising its local and national profile that it has trampled the rights of many administrators, teachers, parents, and students by both treating them without respect and denying their voices in the policymaking process.  I found myself in tears last Saturday at a DC Council Budgetary hearing when a student and parent discussed their frustrations with the Bruce Monroe saga, the details of which have been woefully underreported by the media (if you want the real heart-wrenching stuff, watch the hearing between 2:08:30 and 2:16:10).  Bruce Monroe and the unreported story about the climate at Columbia Heights for the past few years are but pieces of a broader story that the media (ESPECIALLY the Washington Post) seem blind to.  (Even Bill Turque, who seems to be an advocate for teachers, parents, and students, seems to have had his journalism manipulated by the WaPo's editorial board.)

While there is plenty of evidence that Columbia Heights Educational Campus has done phenomenal things for students, the media has largely ignored discussing an environment that has seen its turnover rate rise every year.  Last year, I believe thirty-six new teachers were hired over the summer.  And sources working in the building tell me that many expect the turnover rate to be even higher this summer since the climate is the worst they've ever experienced, some suggesting that as many as half of the staff may leave the school in addition to the high number of staff who have already left mid-year.  This will be especially true if the administration goes around on the last day of school handing out pink slips as they did in 2009, when they fired 21 teachers, many without notice.  The way that many of the CHEC teachers felt about the manner in which the administration acted suggests that relations could be better between teachers and administrators to put it mildly.  

Even 825 seems to be somewhat concerned with the high turnover rate at the school.  Word in the hallway is that Rhee's office made it clear to Tukeva after last summer that such a high turnover rate would not be acceptable in the future (which must have been awkward for Rhee considering that many believe Tukeva to wield more political power than even Rhee herself.)  After all, hiring new teachers is expensive.  In an effort to build staff rapport and buy-in, Tukeva invited/required all new staff to attend two weeks of summer training this past July, paying each of them to be there every day.  It doesn't appear as if that effort made much difference in staff morale or loyalty.  Additionally, Tukeva paid a national board certified teacher and close colleague to leave the classroom and take a full time job serving as a school-wide mentor to new teachers.  Unfortunately, even this mentor, who had worked at the school for a number of years, and whom most of the new teachers considered one of the only people at the school who made their job survivable, quit the job mid-year.  I've talked to more than one teacher who said they feel physically ill at the thought of going to work.  Additionally, I've heard many teachers take issue with the school's boasting over its rating on the WaPo's Challenge Index.  Many new and inexperienced teachers have been given AP courses to teach without having been sent to AP training, without having seen or passed the AP test themselves, without getting the AP course approved by College Board, and without giving their consent to teach an AP course.  So it's hard to imagine that any of those teachers, except the most extraordinary, are actually managing to produce exceptionally rigorous AP courses - especially when you consider that many of them complain about a significant lack of support from the administration.  

I don't mean to suggest that having a high rating on the Challenge Index isn't significant, or that Columbia Heights doesn't provide a relatively good education in comparison to other DCPS schools.  But I do think that the public should be receiving the other side of the story.  Whatever is going on at CHEC isn't as inspirational as the Washington Post would have its readers believe.  A revolving door of young and inexperienced teachers is not (contrary to what some might say) good for students.  There will be two very interesting things that I'll be looking for in the coming months.  First, I'll be interested to see how CHEC's DC CAS scores fair after turning over such a high percentage of teachers (even though I will be the first to admit that we should place minimal faith in test scores as an indicator of a school's effectiveness).  Second, it will be interesting to see how/whether the media (and especially the Post) cover the mass exodus of teachers at CHEC this coming June.  

As I stated above, the story of Columbia Heights is just one piece of a larger story that's not being told in the District.  It's the piece I'm most familiar with, so I can provide some insight.  However, I've discovered many others.  Some shocking details of which you can't find in any media source.  This has been a real lesson for me on the role of the media in politics.  Again, I don't mean to suggest that CHEC is a horrible school or that DCPS is doing nothing right, but it would be nice if we could get the other side of the story every now and then.  


  1. First, as a DCPS parent I am grateful for your blog. I appreciate your efforts as a teacher and a writer.

    Second, I would be interested in hearing your opinion of this report, produced by Fight for Children:

    I would really like to hear your analysis and I agree, there are certain narratives that prevail right now in the media. As a parent, I can say that what I read in the papers bears little resemblance to the reality my children face at school.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. Title1soccermom: Thanks so much for sharing this. This is VERY interesting. I've had many conversations with teachers at CHEC about where Tukeva gets her money from. Many of them theorized that researchers must pay her to try their strategies because teachers at that school are asked to try something different practically every week, thereby making each new fad merely a hoop to jump through for staff who see their day-to-day duties as more important than trying to newest strategy when they know the administration won't care about it next week. So it's now clear that MCIP does bring in revenue for these things, and that's probably a reason things get so crazy at CHEC.

    Additionally, the bit in the report about Tukeva's shared leadership: it claims that she shares leadership with teachers and instructional experts (i.e. assistant principals who have both teaching experience and who are experts at professional development). I haven't talked to anybody at that school who believes that the leadership style is anything but top down. There are no real teacher leaders, except maybe one, and she quit after being persistently harassed by the admin. Also, Tukeva's APs who are supposedly experienced teachers and professional development experts probably all have about two years teaching experience with TFA, and I highly question their professional development experience. These are not professional teachers. They're people who want to move up the educational ladder quickly. And their attitude toward the teachers is horrendous. I was told by someone who sat in on their meetings (the cult as they're known among many of the staff) that they spoke about their teachers in horrific ways, and they were often heard boasting about which administrator gave the lowest IMPACT ratings. Many of them also did New Leaders for New Schools (referenced in the report), which is a TFA-like alternative administrative licensing program in the District promoted by those who believe that it's more important to get the right people than it is to train them to do the job well. So they all lead professional development, and they all give feedback to teachers, but because these are neither people who spent a ton of time in the classroom nor empathize with the realities of everyday urban education, they're not well-received by a largely young and relatively inexperienced staff (the consensus being that Tukeva prefers these types of teachers as they're easier to manipulate - supporters of the school would say that it takes a special type of workaholic to really provide a decent education to CHEC's unique population).

    So again - thanks for the report. This is like the missing link for me. I'd been wondering what it was that motivated the school to jump through so many unusual hoops, and now I know what their incentive was.

  3. Very, very interesting. I do think you ought to email Fight for Children and let them hear what you have to say or at least direct them to your blog.

    I think Fight for Children truly wants to do the right thing and much of the QSI is very good work. I think they may have been dazzled by Maria Tukeva though. I could be dead wrong though. FFC seems to be very enamored of TFA and New Leaders, so maybe they wouldn't be interested in hearing an alternative narrative to the CHEC success story.

    Either way, thanks for your analysis. I genuinely appreciate what you have to say and I'm sad that a teacher like yourself had to get out of DCPS. As a public school parent, I'm ashamed of the way you and your colleagues are treated at CHEC.

  4. Thanks for the support, Title1soccermom.

    I don't mean to give the impression that CHEC is a horrible school for students, which I'm sure you've noticed. Because they try to enact virtually every reform-minded strategy in contemporary education, they necessarily do a few things right. In my experience, I can say that they really forced me to increase the rigor of the content I was delivering, helped me understand how to better form my planning around DC's relatively poor standards, and helped me improve my classroom management (although my classroom management improvement was actually probably just me maturing as a teacher - when I think about it, I'm not sure CHEC had much to do with it).

    Where they fall short is in trying to do EVERYTHING. As one of my colleagues put it, they just throw everything at the wall and don't even wait to see if it sticks. As a result, teachers there are literally responsible for working what would be 30-hour work days if they faithfully complied with everything the CHEC administration demanded. The result is that teachers become disillusioned and quit, they just stop trying and become mediocre, OR the really good ones learn to ignore the administration and do good teaching despite them.

    The other way they fall short is, as I mentioned before, they've got people in administrative positions who don't have the experience or competence to do what's being asked of them, which I don't mean as a slight to them. Tukeva is expecting people who did two years of TFA and then jumped through some grad program (Harvard for some and New Leaders for New School for others) to be experts in their content area, experts at management, experts at professional development, AND experts at best pedagogical practice. You could teach for 30 years, get your PhD, and be a principal for a few years and still fall short of that requirement. As a result, these relatively young administrators "fake it" and make unrealistic demands on the teachers in order to make up for what they are understandably unable to do.

    Lastly, there's just something about the type of people she has as administrators. With the exception of one or two of them, they simply don't trust teachers, don't know how to talk to them, and can't even smile or say hello to them in the hallway. They are awful at building trust and seem to believe the best management strategy is intimidation. Obviously, there's not a lot of trust or communication happening as a result.

    So - overall, it's not such a bad school for the kids (with the exception of the fact that there's an administrator there who's been accused of physical and verbal abuse of students and staff and sexual harassment of staff), but it's definitely not the type of place I want to work.

    I'm somewhat doubtful that that story will change the minds of an organization like Fight for Children. But I guess you never know.


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