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3 Weeks Late, Pupils in Nation's Capital Return to the 3 Rs

Education: Roof repairs to aging buildings forced the delay in starting classes. It is third time in four years school opening has been tardy.

September 22, 1997|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — To the relief of frazzled parents and thousands of increasingly bored children, public schools are finally set to open today in the nation's capital.

For three weeks, parents here have scrambled to figure out what to do with their kids as school officials have tried to complete roof repairs on the district's aging buildings, some of which date to the 19th century.

Some more affluent families have hired District of Columbia schoolteachers to come to their homes to prepare lessons. In other neighborhoods, parks and recreation centers have kept summer programs running overtime. In still others, particularly in the city's roughest wards, large numbers of children with time on their hands can be seen hanging out on street corners.

The failure to open the District's public schools on time is no surprise; this is the third time in four years it has happened. What is different this time is the people in charge, and what their performance portends for the increasing federal role in running the city.

Last year, accusing the D.C. schools of "educational child abuse," a presidentially appointed emergency financial control board for the city fired the school superintendent, stripped the elected school board of all authority and gave a retired three-star general, Julius W. Becton Jr., extraordinary powers to turn the system around and make it work.

So far, it has been a rough ride.

Becton, 71, who was one of the Army's first black generals, then chief of the Federal Emergency Management Administration before leaving government, carefully hones an impression of military decisiveness and can-do efficiency. He speaks with calculated bluntness about the task ahead.

"I did not come out of retirement, where I was thoroughly enjoying myself, just to make a show of reforming the public schools in the District of Columbia," he says. His new staff, which includes another retired general as chief of operations and a former top Pentagon civilian as head of personnel, "didn't waste any time" when it took over last winter, he said in a speech Thursday to Washington's Brookings Institution. "We immediately developed a plan of action.

"I intend to finish the job."

Becton vows to remove any teachers who are not fully credentialed by January--as many as one-third of the city's teachers may lack proper credentials--fire principals who do not make their schools measure up, and end social promotions this year for any third- or eighth-grader who has not met grade standards in reading. Beyond that, he has set an even bolder goal: To make "the public schools of the District"--now among the worst public systems in the country--"the model for the rest of the nation."

But 10 months into his tenure, and three weeks after schools were supposed to open for the fall, many parents are already growing restive.

"The new administration over-promised," says Delabian Rice-Thurston, director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, the city's chief parent advocacy group.

"I think they came in with the serious notion that their predecessors were incompetent, that anybody ought to be able to open the schools on time, that anybody ought to be able to raise student achievement. . . . They are, I fear, being humbled by the scope of the problem."

If so, the humbling has implications beyond the capital city's ever-troubled classrooms.

Last fall's federal takeover of the schools was a trial run for a second, broader takeover this summer. Under legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in August, all the city's elected leaders, from Mayor Marion Barry on down, have been stripped of their authority. Public business--from filling potholes to running the municipal hospital--is now in the hands of unelected officials, who face a skeptical public and a recalcitrant bureaucracy as they attempt to reform one of the country's most dysfunctional municipal governments.

*

As the old, elected officials and the new appointed ones warily eye each other, both sides are watching Becton's actions, believing that his experience will provide a good test of whether this experiment in emergency government can work.

Barry, for example, is already using Becton as a foil for his undeclared, but seemingly certain, campaign for reelection. As he travels the city, he stokes resentment over Becton's perceived isolation from ordinary parents and voters and makes the retired general Exhibit A in what the mayor likes to call the "rape of democracy" in the nation's capital.

Even without such political interference, the difficulties Becton faces are legion.

As with nearly all urban school systems, many schools in the capital struggle with the pathologies of poverty: students arriving in classrooms ill-fed, lacking parental supervision, their lives disrupted by drugs, gunfire and gangs.

In Washington, those problems have been compounded by years of dramatic mismanagement.

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