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Class Notes
This is a make-or-break school year
(Published September 19, 2005)


Welcome back to the new! D.C. Public Schools' 2005-2006 year is well under way, having started Aug. 23 for teachers with four days of new standards training, and with students at their desks on Aug. 29. This year marks my third year at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights, and my third year writing for The Common Denominator.

More so than any other year, this is crunch time. Our no-longer-new superintendent, Clifford Janey, is in his second year at the helm, after a year of trying to wrap his arms around the dysfunction that can sometimes characterize DCPS. Traditionally in the District, we have given our educational leaders -- whether classroom teachers, principals or superintendents -- about a one-year honeymoon. In his year, Janey has pushed a number of initiatives forward: new academic standards, new assessments (say goodbye to Stanford 9!), new budgets, new teacher recruitment efforts, a new scheduling system, new textbooks and new energy in the school system. This year is the one upon which he will be evaluated, and he will live or die on the achievement of our kids on our new assessment.

To transform DCPS, Janey is counting on a mix of the old and the new. The majority of the staff called upon to deliver on his vision pre-date him, and may even pre-date the last five superintendents (Gen. Julius Becton, anyone?). It is a question of whether we can do it; most of us "pre-Janeys" haven't seen a lot of change in student achievement (although we did make strong gains in elementary school last year). Last year, high school reading and math scores were either flat or declining. A major test Janey faces is whether our new standards will be an effective tool for helping experienced teachers produce a quantum change in results.

In addition to the "old heads," Janey's team has handpicked 45 new principals. Out of 150 DCPS schools, about one third of our schools are being led by a "Janey-era" leader. Add to the new principals an annual teacher turnover of roughly 15 percent, and you have about 750 new classroom teachers as well. For example, at my school, we have 13 new staff out of roughly 70 positions. I don't believe that we can expect a school to be transformed in a year; however, the large number of new staff also makes this year a test of Janey's ability to identify talented personnel.

This year is make-or-break, as well, because the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements hit schools hard at the end of this year. None of the neighborhood high schools in DCPS made "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) last year in both reading and math; many of them have now failed for the fourth year in a row. If those schools fail to make AYP again this year, the law says they must be reconstituted, with all staff fired or transferred, and a new educational management organization, possibly a private company like Edison, taking over the school.

For me, this is my fifth year of teaching, a year commonly mentioned in teacher retention statistics as the time by which about 50 percent of teachers in urban school districts have dropped out. I feel like this is a make-or-break year for me, too. I know I haven't made it this far based on my stamina. That I haven't changed careers after four years is more a function of affection for my kids than anything like endurance or heroism. Each year I whip myself into a state of panic just prior to the start of school: Will I be ready? What will the kids be like? Can I really do this? Each year, I am less surprised by how wonderfully smart, talented and good-natured the students of DCPS are, and sadly, less surprised by how little they know. As I understand better the character of my students, and as I have learned to see the tremendous positive potential they have, it is this flip side -- how much they still need to learn -- that gives me a raging motivation to come back for more.

During the teacher training at the start of the year, staff members at Bell were asked to discuss a quote about the power of the teacher, that kids respond back in the same way to what the teachers bring to the classroom. When the teacher comes in full of good cheer, passion for learning and warm regard for students, kids conform to this climate; when the teacher comes in tired and dismissive of kids' needs and abilities, students confront them with negative energy. That's a lot of power in the role of the teacher to make things work.

As we live this new school year, and by "we" I mean all of us -- parents, students, teachers, administrators, Superintendent Janey and his staff, our entire community -- I hope that we can think of this quote and hold a few ideas foremost in our hearts and minds: We have to improve now. Our kids deserve it. What we bring to the classroom is what we will get back.

Thank you for reading as I begin the chronicle of another school year. I hope you enjoy this year as much as I will.


Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School. Contact him at

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator