Head Of The Class

By Suevon Lee

Photographs by Jesse Neider

In less than one month, the hallways of Washington, D.C.’s public schools will be filled with reenergized students fresh off summer break.

Like every school year, there will be new students, nervous teachers and redecorated bulletin boards. But one change in particular will have people talking: 37-year-old Michelle Rhee. Confirmed as chief of DC Public Schools in July, she is the first Asian American ever — and the first non-African American in 40 years — to head D.C.’s schools.

Rhee, most recently a resident of Denver, Colo., assumes control of a 55,000-student urban school district that is among the lowest-performing school districts in the country. Only 7 percent of eighth-graders scored at a level of proficiency or above in math, while just 11 percent of fourth-graders scored at a level of proficiency or above in reading and language arts, according to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Skeptics wonder whether someone of Rhee’s age and experience can turn around D.C.’s beleaguered school system, which has seen six superintendents in just a decade, most of whom were veteran administrators.

But for Rhee, who has spent 15 years in urban education, change is visible on the horizon. “I think it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a difficult challenge but I don’t think it’s daunting,” she said, during an interview in her corner office at DCPS headquarters. “It’s very doable.”

It is Rhee’s fearless attitude that has helped her win over critics who have pointed out her relative lack of experience. She has never headed a school system, and her teaching experience is limited to three years in a Baltimore inner-city elementary school while involved with Teach for America, a national corps of recent college graduates placed in struggling schools.

Labeled everything from an “unorthodox” choice by a Washington Post editorial to “an unknown” by one leader of a D.C. parents’ advocacy group, Rhee has much to prove. But by many accounts, Rhee — who is slim, with straight, black hair, and who appears to be in her mid-20s, not her mid-30’s — dazzled the D.C. City Council during her 12-hour confirmation hearing last month, with one observer even calling her performance “masterful.”

At her hearing, more than two dozen witnesses came to testify on her behalf, including former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who flew in from California to talk about how Rhee helped boost college-acceptance rates at Sacramento High School, which his nonprofit works closely with.

“It’s evident she’s passionate and sincere about wanting to improve District of Columbia schools. I was quite impressed by her answers, by her posture,” said D.C. Councilmember Yvette Alexander.

Rhee was unanimously confirmed a short week later.

She is no stranger to the public school system, having founded The New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit, in 1997, at just 27. There she helped recruit and train promising young teachers who would then be funneled into struggling urban school districts nationwide. Rhee stayed on with the nonprofit for a decade, recruiting energetic, business-oriented educators and administrators who shared a new vision for teaching.

Through her organization’s contract with DCPS, Rhee caught the attention of Adrian M. Fenty, the charismatic, young mayor whose 2006 election campaign was largely driven by a promise to deliver sweeping education reform. One midnight in June, on the eve of his official takeover of the D.C. schools, Fenty, 36, fired then-Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, 61, announcing Rhee as his replacement in a surprise news conference the next morning.

Fenty’s hands-on approach to fixing the school system is part of a larger nationwide trend in which mayors in places such as New York and Chicago have assumed control of schools from their cities’ elected school boards. Fenty, for instance, believes in positioning more innovative, creative minds within school leadership to spearhead education reform, whether they have previous administrative credentials or not.

In a recent interview, Fenty told the Washington Post he was most impressed by Rhee’s “intellect, sense of urgency and management acumen.”

“Rhee had all of the qualities I was looking for in a chancellor,” he wrote in an e-mail to KoreAm. “She and I share a vision for what DCPS can and should be.”

Familiar with the city’s tangled bureaucracy, Rhee initially refused the position. “I was not naïve at all to what I was going to face,” she said. “I told the mayor, ‘I’ve seen how school districts operate from the inside and I have no interest in ever being a superintendent.’”

“I told (Fenty),” Rhee recalled, “‘You do not want me for this job. If I were to take this job, the things I would want to do would be very radical because I’m a change agent and frankly, you’re a politician.’“

She emphasized to Fenty that her strategy for change would shake up the city’s entrenched political culture, and how could he possibly back that? “What I would be doing would be kicking up all kinds of dirt and not making people happy,” she said.

So what ultimately convinced Rhee, who majored in government at Cornell University and completed her master’s in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to uproot herself from Denver, where she was raising her two daughters — Starr, 8, and Olivia, 5 — conveniently near her retired parents? Why come to Washington, D.C., to take on the seemingly insurmountable challenge of fixing one of the country’s most underperforming school districts?

The very politician himself.

“We had a mayor who was willing to take personal responsibility and accountability for the schools who said, ‘You do what you need to do even though it’s not popular,’“ Rhee said.

And with the promise of the mayor’s support, Rhee was sold.

Her mission includes closing the schools’ achievement gap and making D.C. the highest performing urban school system in the country. In the disintegrating D.C. school system — where student morale is low, books are in perpetual short supply, and facilities suffer from widespread disrepair — the makeover is a hefty challenge.

But her proponents don’t seem deterred. “Michelle is the most productive person you will ever meet. She has a rare combination of vision and the ability to get things done,” said Ariela Rozman, whom Rhee first hired at The New Teacher Project and now steps into her shoes as its CEO.

Rhee has already begun to build her core team around a handful of Teach for America veterans and former colleagues at The New Teacher Project. She leans toward longer school days, smaller classroom sizes and closer contact with parents. Her own recruitment philosophy favors locating fresh talent across various professions. She also supports pay incentives: she once openly expressed her support for a Massachusetts teachers’ $20,000 signing bonus. (Rhee’s own salary of $275,000 will make her the highest-paid school superintendent in the DC metropolitan area.)

According to Rhee’s older brother Erik, 40, an attorney in Denver, his sister has never been one to put on the brakes. “She is always working. She’s so focused on what needs to get done. I used to tell her that she needs to slow down, and take it a little easier, but she’s driven that way,” he said.

Growing up, Rhee was used to standing out. Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., but raised in Toledo, Ohio, she was the middle child between two brothers. Her father, Shang, 67, a physician, headed the rehabilitation unit at Toledo’s Mercy Hospital while her mother, Inza Lee, 63, owned a women’s clothing boutique.

“I went to school and was always the only Korean kid,” Rhee recalled. In fact, her parents sent her and Erik to Korea for a year following her summer after sixth grade, in order for them to learn about their heritage and also to learn how to read, write and speak Korean. Rhee called it “a defining experience.”

At Maumee Valley Country Day School, an elite private school in Toledo, Rhee excelled in field hockey, basketball and soccer. She also participated in tutoring and education outreach, spending a summer break volunteering at an Indian reservation in Saskatchewan.

Rhee says her volunteerism was influenced by her father, whom she describes as more liberal than most other Korean parents.

“He was very clear in saying to me, ‘The things that you have and what you accomplish has really nothing do with how good you are, and everything to do with where you were born, how lucky you are to be in the schools that you’re in, so never think for a minute that you’re better than kids who grew up in less fortunate situations,” Rhee said.

After college, Rhee’s interest in working with underprivileged kids propelled her into a two-year placement through Teach for America at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary School, a place Dr. Rhee described as “a war-torn area” but where Rhee was credited with dramatically boosting students’ reading levels.

Her teaching methods included strictly enforcing two hours of homework each night, dividing up her classroom into smaller groups, and team-teaching classes with fellow instructors. She also frequently sought out her students’ parents, even if that meant placing a phone call at 9 p.m. on a weeknight.

“It was nothing magic in terms of what I did,” Rhee said of her teaching experience. “I had extremely high expectations for the kids. I have seen the high expectations and the incredibly high quality of education that is available to some populations. Having been privy to that, it raises my expectations as to what we need to deliver to students in D.C., most of whom are from poor, minority backgrounds.”

“It’s not fair that kids in low-income communities don’t have the same opportunities as I did because of where they were born and because they didn’t have access to high quality education,” she added.

There are those who wonder, however, whether Rhee, a product of a middle-class, suburban Korean American household, can understand the needs of a school system that is 85 percent African American, where 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and where school leadership positions are largely filled by black individuals.

“I know it’s on people’s minds,” she said. “It’s very obvious that this is a school district that is predominantly African American and I am Korean American. I think that’s a stark contrast and one that people recognize and are certainly thinking about. But in terms of how that will have an impact … the focus is really on the kids.”

Iris Toyer, chair of Parents United for the DC Public Schools, a parents’ advocacy group, expressed additional concerns about Rhee’s preparedness to handle an agency that operates under a $1 billion budget. “Running your own nonprofit is completely different from running a public agency,” she said. “There is just no way anyone can make that comparison.”

Toyer, who has a son entering the 10th grade, added another cautionary note: “(Rhee) seems to be very likeable but in D.C. it certainly takes more than being likeable. People have to be tough, very political.”

For now, Rhee is keeping her eyes focused straight ahead. She’s been visiting parents in their living rooms, touring schools around the District and meeting with students. It’s her way of getting to know the community and helping to unite them behind a common cause: improving the D.C. public school system.

“She hit the ground running,” said D.C. Councilmember Harry “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. “It’s only just begun.”

Rhee also has added investment in her new role: She plans to enroll her two young daughters in D.C. public schools.

On a recent visit to Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in southeast Washington, Rhee went from classroom to classroom, introducing herself to various students participating in a combined summer athletic and educational self-development program. “Hi, I’m Michelle,” she said, extending her hand to students sitting at their desks. When she asked 15-year-old Anita Foster, “What’s the best teacher you had this year?” the soft-spoken junior immediately lit up as she described an English teacher who taught the class William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“I love the way she was able to instantly connect with the students,” said Caitlin Rochford, 23, who teaches world history to 10th-graders and was present during Rhee’s visit to Ballou. “If you want to know how well a school is running, ask the students themselves.”

After all, Rhee’s job is to try to come up with answers. “The fact that we are the country’s capital and the school system is in as bad a shape as it is — I don’t think anyone looks at that and thinks of that as right,” she said.

“I think everyone wants to do everything to turn the system around.”

When the first bell rings August 27, all eyes will be watching Rhee, hoping she can be the one to do just that.