Dr. Lewis Ferebee
Dr. Lewis Ferebee Credit: Darrow Montgomery

DCPS chancellor nominee Lewis Ferebee defended his record to the D.C. Council until 11:40 p.m. Tuesday, pledging several times that he won’t instate “one-size-fits-all” policies and replicate controversial charter-friendly overhauls.

Even for those optimistic about Ferebee’s first month as acting chancellor, the road to picking a second schools chancellor in three years hasn’t been smooth. Over the past week, several advocates and parents who spoke to City Papersaid the chancellor selection process again left a bad taste in their mouths. The interruption in permanent leadership since the firing of former Chancellor Antwan Wilson has hurt the system, they say.

“By everyone’s account, it was a laughable process, even to call it a process,” Alexandra Simbana, a DCPS parent, says of the mayor’s search committee that sparked a lawsuit after the panel initially didn’t include enough students and parents. Mayor Muriel Bowsermoved to expand the committee after plaintiffs filed the suit, and the lawsuit is no longer moving forward, attorney Greg Smith says.

“That feels like water under the bridge at this point,” says Cathy Reilly, head of Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators. But she also says, “I think there’s fatigue over turnover and starting over.”

Ruth Wattenberg, president of the State Board of Education and its Ward 3 representative, says she senses the same frustration. “Hopefully he’ll be a keeper,” she says.

The turnover certainly hasn’t helped DCPS, and it may have stalled progress. For example, several people testified on Tuesday about the sore need for expanding multilingual programs in schools, particularly in wards 7 and 8. “Since December 2016, DCPS has added exactly zero new dual language programs,” testified Vanessa Bertelli, director of DC Language Immersion Project.

For over five hours (of a nearly 10-hour hearing) on Tuesday, councilmembers probed Ferebee on how he would improve student achievement, champion neighborhood public schools, and ensure stability in school leadership.

Josh Henderson, who heads the pro-charter D.C. Democrats for Education Reform, says Ferebee has done well listening to students and parents, as many who testified Tuesday also noted.

“I think it’s obviously unfortunate to be looking for another nominee so soon, but overall in the end we think the mayor ended on an incredibly qualified candidate,” Henderson says.

Becky Reina, the head of the Ward 1 Education Council, believes that what advocates suggest is often at odds with what comes out of the mayor’s office. “I think that’s as much a source of the fatigue as the fact that we’re going through the process again so soon,” she says.

At his confirmation hearing Tuesday evening, Ferebee said he would not replicate some of his approaches in other jurisdictions, like ending the neighborhood high school system in Indianapolis and turning over some schools to charter operators.

“What may have worked in the school systems I have previously worked in, may not be the best solution here,” he said.

Ferebee also addressed criticism of his response in 2016 to a child sex abuse scandal in Indianapolis. He said he never ordered any official to not report the allegations of a sexual relationship between a school employee and student, and he pledged to fully implement the District’s new School Safety Act. The law is subject to funding and requires all schools to implement policies to prevent sex abuse.

To boost student proficiency, Ferebee talked of improving literacy for students before they reach elementary school. Meanwhile, Council Chair Phil Mendelson said he was not impressed with Ferebee’s progress on closing the “achievement gap” in Indianapolis. (Ferebee redefined that as an “opportunity gap” during the hearings.) Black students’ scores on standardized tests worsened during Ferebee’s tenure, the Washington Post wrote in a profile.

Ferebee said low performing schools in D.C. may require intervention by way of additional resources for staff or different educational programs. “I don’t believe that necessarily means it needs to be converted into a different kind of school or operated by a charter operator,” he said of struggling schools.

Ferebee said he has heard advocates want less principal and teacher turnover and more flexibility with the District’s teacher evaluation model (IMPACT). He said he wants to expand dual language programming but said it “can’t be forced upon communities.”

In addition to Ferebee, the Acting Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn is also new on the job. Amanda Alexander, who led DCPS as interim chancellor for nine months and began working in DCPS in 1998 as a kindergarten teacher, was a finalist for the position.

“At a time when DCPS most needs stable, trustworthy, consistent leadership, I think it definitely hurts the system,” says Markus Batchelor, Ward 8 representative on the education board, of the leadership limbo.

At a meeting in Cleveland Park on Monday night, both Ferebee and Kihn reminded everyone how new they are to the job. At one point, Ferebee was asked to respond to a newly released report on overcrowding at Woodrow Wilson High School.

“Paul probably has more institutional knowledge than I do,” Ferebee said to some laughs.

Replied Kihn, who was appointed to the position in October 2018: “Yes, three months more.”