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You have to wonder if Elena Bell would’ve passed on the principal gig at Peabody and Watkins Elementary schools if she knew it was going to be like this.
As Bell finishes her second year on the job—one that included a gut modernization at Watkins that displaced its entire 433-student body for the year—some parents are leading a fierce effort to remove her. Among them are Samah and Grover Norquist—he of Americans for Tax Reform fame—who have become the faces of the attempted ousting, according to numerous parents.
“People in this community can eat you alive,” says one of them, who believes Bell should keep her job.
Samah Norquist claims she and her husband aren’t leading the charge, which she says includes “a diverse and wide swath of parents.” She wants Bell gone because of the 15 teachers and staff who left Watkins after her first year on the job, including many who were well liked and had good performance reviews.
“Driving away some of the best teachers from the cluster is not what we expect from a competent principal,” says Norquist, who took it upon herself to conduct exit interviews with eight of the departing teachers and one staff member.
Those parents who stand with Bell say her detractors are few but vocal. They acknowledge that her management style is a work in progress, but they say the kids like her and she’s finding her rhythm. Her supporters say that any shortcomings can be explained by a new principal with strong ideas finding her way in an unfamiliar community.
“How insane is it that that she went after teachers and conducted her own exit interviews?” asks a parent who thinks the departures at Watkins were mostly about regime change and included a number of teachers who, despite their good performance reviews, were “dead weight.”
Also, Bell is not from D.C., and some parents believe she wasn’t prepared for the, er, determination of the locals.
“Our community is very highly educated,” explains one parent, teeing up a bit of D.C. vernacular. “We are very active. Many do lobbying work for a living. When people make decisions we don’t agree with, we try to work through that with them. It can be challenging.”
Bell’s detractors uniformly cite her blunt handling of existing staff and take a dim view of her new hires. “Parents don’t trust her judgment in hiring teachers and staff,” says Jessica Pannett. “So if more teachers leave this year, many people will lose even more confidence in her abilities.”
But it is Bell’s efforts related to the yawning achievement gap between black and white students at Watkins that some say was a tipping point. The gap is a highly loaded issue because it unequivocally involves race in a community that is keenly aware of D.C.’s tortured racial history.
For Samah Norquist, who calls the achievement gap “an honorable effort to pursue,” it isn’t the gap itself but the principal’s handling of it. She’s criticizing Bell, who is black, for all talk and no action on the issue, a concern echoed in gentler terms by one Bell supporter.
There is precedent for a parent-fueled exit of a Capitol Hill principal. Dawn Clemens was originally the principal of the entire Capitol Hill cluster, which includes Peabody (pre-K3 through kindergarten), Watkins (first through fifth), and Stuart-Hobson (sixth through eighth). That was before a different set of determined parents embarked on a mission to get Clemens sacked.
DCPS won’t say if those parents were the reason Clemens was stripped of Peabody and Watkins in 2015, which, ironically, led to Bell’s hiring. Clemens, who is white, will not be returning to Stuart-Hobson next year. DCPS would not say why Clemens is leaving and Clemens herself declined to comment.
Beyond the intramural drama over Bell and the micro-scrutiny of her every move is the actual achievement gap, which is an undeniable problem at Watkins, as it is in schools across the District and beyond. Third through through fifth grade black students at Watkins are scoring more than 60 percent lower than their white peers in both math and English on the PARCC test, which the District uses to measure achievement.
“Trying to say this is about the achievement gap is really missing the story,” says one anti-Bell parent who sees DCPS and its behavior toward parents as the problem.
But while the achievement gap is a red herring for some, many of the issues plaguing the cluster’s schools are clearly related to it and won’t be solved by a single principal no matter how gifted, beloved, or reviled she might be. And those same achievement-related problems can put pressure on just about everything else, including budget, staff concerns and, say, managing the expectations of a highly engaged and demanding community of parents while more than 400 of their kids are in temporary school quarters for the year.
Bell seems to have a sense of this, according to some parents, and appears to be making a genuine effort to address the gap by educating parents about how to think and speak about it.
Chief among Bell’s efforts is the creation of a parent-run task force on the achievement gap that has met monthly since December, hosting speakers and events to increase community understanding of race and equity issues.
“I sense [detractors] think that somehow those [achievement gap] efforts harm the outcomes for white students or other students,” says one parent who supports Bell. “Maybe they think if you’re focusing efforts on the achievement gap, you can’t achieve for all students.”
Says another Bell backer, “I see my kids having every advantage in the world, and I don’t think it’s OK for my son’s black classmate to not be as successful. I don’t want my kids to see that.”
Bell has also created something called the PARCC Academy, an initiative designed to help parents understand the test that defines the gap itself.
As for the idea that Bell has done little more than wage verbal warfare against the disparity, one parent says, “I find that attitude extremely dismissive. It’s not from someone who is familiar with what’s happening on the achievement gap task force.”
The storm around Bell has also attracted the attention of D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who lives across the street from Watkins. Earlier this year, he trolled the parking area at Watkins speaking to parents about Bell. He also went to a community meeting where the principal was discussed and spoke with both the outgoing and current school chancellors about Bell.
“I’m impressed with her, and I’m impressed with her effort to deal with the achievement gap,” Mendelson says. “The gap is embarrassing. It’s a significant problem.”
According to Samah Norquist, more than 20 parents have expressed their displeasure with Bell in writing to DCPS, including some who met individually with Bell and her bosses. Norquist says she and her husband met with new school Chancellor Antwan Wilson, and they discussed the self-gathered staff exit interviews.
Norquist also says DCPS told her and her husband that “they share our concerns” and that “Principal Bell will be under strict scrutiny by DCPS’ leadership” during the next school year.
In a statement to City Paper, Wilson appears to temper that characterization. “I know Principal Bell, like all of our school leaders, is working with the community to support all students and improve the school for the entire community,” Wilson says. “It’s our job as a district to support her with this effort while continuing to improve the experience of students, teachers, and families.”
Perhaps in the year to come a shiny renovated Watkins facility will calm frayed nerves. In the meantime, for Bell, the parents, and most importantly the kids, school is mercifully out for the summer.