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Schools scramble to meet planning deadline

Some principals overwhelmed by new duties, lack of adequate help or training

(Published April 5, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

Teams of parents and teachers at D.C. public schools are racing to put together academic programs for special education and language minority students. Never mind that most of them have no training in these specialized fields — they’ve got to have it down on paper by April 9.

D.C. parents, teachers, principals and staff are working feverishly to complete school budgets and staffing plans for next year before the deadline set by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

When asked how untrained parents and principals are supposed to perform these new duties, Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks said principals can turn to the school system’s central administrative staff, where an expert in special education or budgeting will be available. But there’s only one expert for every 25 schools.

To make matters worse, many — if not most — central administrative school officials and staff were unavailable during the week of March 29. They took the week off for spring break.

Some parent teams are now meeting every night to beat the deadline. But the team members at one Northwest school knew by April 1 they weren’t going to make it.

"There’s no way we can get this in on time," said the president of the school’s team, who asked not to be named. She already has written Ackerman a letter asking for a one-week extension.

"Some schools are making enormous inroads because of this budget process," the team president said. "Others are falling flat on their faces."

Team members at one Northeast school had so much difficulty working together that a professional mediator was brought in to quell the infighting.

Even the best-managed schools in the city, where highly skilled parents are taking an active role in planning for next year, are finding the process extremely difficult and time consuming, parents say. They worry about what may be happening at schools with poor leadership or where parents bring few professional skills to the table.

The increased workload is the price of "school-based budgeting," a new model introduced by Ackerman that shifts many responsibilities from the central administration to individual schools, their principals and parents. Ackerman has said the new model provides more flexibility for principals to be creative with curriculum and staffing patterns and to spend money where they think it best.

And while some principals welcome the freedom their new duties bring, others — especially those with few parents possessing the appropriate skills to help them — find the work overwhelming.

School-based budgeting is not just more work for principals, it’s more work in areas for which they are not necessarily trained, said Frank Bolden, a retired principal and president of Local 4 of the Council of School Officers, which represents D.C. principals. "Now they want to make principals responsible for special education too."

So now, for the first time, principals — many of whom rose from the ranks of coaches, guidance counselors and teachers — must make decisions about contracting and procurement, budgeting, staffing patterns, curriculum development for special needs students, and compliance with federal regulations.

Among the documents required for the April 9 deadline are an assessment of each school’s needs, curriculum plans for special education and language minority students, and concrete plans for improving students’ academic performance.

The school teams, known as Local School Restructuring Teams, are supposed to be composed of parents, teachers, support staff and the principal. But some schools report their LSRT is non-functional or hasn’t met within anyone’s memory. Each team is supposed to elect a president but there is little evidence that all have complied.

The problem is some schools "can’t get enough people to fill up the spots," Bolden said. "In some schools those teams do well, but in others schools it just becomes a power struggle over who is going to run the building. In some schools those teams do not even exist."

Staff of the city council education committee, chaired by Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, asked school administrators weeks ago for a list of the team members at each school. A list has not yet been provided, according to committee staff. Chavous has scheduled a public hearing April 12 on school-based budgeting.

It’s difficult to tell how schools are coping with their new responsibilities because few are willing to discuss the issue openly. Few parents or principals contacted for this story were willing to be identified in print, citing an entrenched culture of reprisal against those who publicly criticize the system. Many are afraid to complain, even privately, to their superiors.

"It’s just the nature of the beast," sighed the principal of an elementary school in Northeast. "Of course, nobody wants to talk about it."

DCPS assistant superintendents and other staff will review the individual school plans during the week of April 12, said school spokeswoman Vernell Jessie. Plans may be returned to school teams for elaboration or clarification before they are reviewed a second time by a panel that will include Ackerman, she said.

Meanwhile, most of the planning teams are just focused on getting the documents in, said the school team president from Northwest.

"There’s a lot of cynicism about this process," she said. "Some of us wonder, if all 149 of these reports come in at once, is anybody really going to read them?"

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator