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.