Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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For years, John Derlega had looked from his window at the rusting façade of William Lloyd Garrison Elementary School on S Street NW near Logan Circle. Of course, he had never entered the building. A classic D.C. young professional, Derlega lived local but focused elsewhere. Then he and his wife had a child.

The couple wanted a public education for their daughter. But the District of Columbia Public Schools had a reputation for being a dreadful system with just a few exceptions. So they went looking for those exceptions and researching charter schools. “We began by going to open houses. We went to Ross [Elementary School] and Capital City Charter School,” says Derlega, 37, who is white and works as a nonprofit fundraising executive. “My wife made contact with the principal at Ross; I made contact with Capital City.”

And the DCPS made contact right back in a rather surprising way: The couple received an e-mail from Chancellor Michelle Rhee. “We were blown away to get direct e-mails from her,” Derlega says.

Mona Sehgal also received the chancellor’s attention. While the 17-year Foggy Bottom resident frequently passed Francis Junior High School near 24th and N streets NW, she never went in. But after she married and had her first child, she was scouting schools in neighborhoods she’d “never visited before” and entering the city’s lottery for out-of-boundary schools.

John Derlega(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Meanwhile, Francis morphed into the Francis-Stevens Education Campus, with a pre-K through 8th grade academic program. She attended an open house where she met the principal and Rhee. “I told them if they put a class for three-year olds there, I would consider the school,” says Sehgal, 42, who is of Indian heritage. While Seghal was off exploring distant options, DCPS created just such a program at Francis-Stevens.

“When I saw the notice, I said, wait, this is what I asked for,” says Sehgal. She and her husband, who is white, recruited other families, ending up with 30—enough for two pre-school classes. “And, for the 2011-2012 school year, we already have four or five new neighborhood families interested in the school.”

Much of what you read about Rhee these days involves her often acrimonious combat with mobilized politicians and unionized teachers. But over the past two years, the battle-hardened schools chief has simultaneously been on a charm offensive, having tea with new parents, drafting e-mails to school-hunting moms and dads, and otherwise recruiting folks who might previously have shunned DCPS. And the most conspicuous targets of that wooing are ones from the demographic that include Sehgal and Derlega: affluent, educated, and disproportionately white.

Rhee rejects the notion she’s focused on any particular group. Most of her career, she says, has been spent addressing the needs of poor African-American children. “If we can make sure our children in Anacostia are getting a great education, then we will be able to shatter all the excuses people have about poor children not being able to perform,” she says.

Indeed, much of her role as DCPS’ chief marketer has involved spreading the word about good schools beyond the handful of historically excellent Upper Northwest elementary schools. “What’s in people’s heads is that there are these six schools that are good. Everybody knows them. But increasingly, there now are some really solid schools—Barnard Elementary, J.O. Wilson [for example]—that are these gems.”

DCPS has developed compelling programs and enhanced school-based leadership at “recruitment schools” like Francis-Stevens, she says. Those are poised to “turn the corner.” Not unlike Ross, “Francis-Stevens can also become a school that has a lot of demand, if we do things right.” Rhee says DCPS has been conducting “strong outreach to families. I am trying to woo everybody back—not just white people.”

Mona Sehgal(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Still, a glance at the places where Rhee believes her luring of parents could make a difference in school enrollment suggests a certain type of community is front and center: Gentrified locales where demographics have shifted because of the influx of people like the Derlegas and Sehgal—but where neighborhood schools remain overwhelmingly African American, inconsistent with the new diversity.

Rhee’s campaign has included bus advertisements, radio spots, e-mails, conference calls, private meetings in the homes of current or potential DCPS parents, and pep-rally-style sessions at schools including Francis-Stevens. There, she didn’t appeal to parents’ liberal guilt but urged them to choose the school that would best educate their child.

“Not all of you are going to make that decision this year; some of you will and every year the number is going to grow and grow,” she told them. She’s certain a few years ago, the folks attending that meeting “would never think of sending their kids to DCPS.”

And just who was in that group?

“It was mixed,” says Rhee. “But I would say the group was predominantly white.”

It appears DCPS’ leadership is engaged in a real-time experiment to see whether it’s possible to integrate a school system by reaching out to a group that has traditionally rejected it as an option. They are achieving some success: Between 2007 and 2010, white enrollment in DCPS increased from 6 percent to 9 percent and Hispanic enrollment increased from 11 percent to 13 percent. During that same period, African-American enrollment dropped from 80 percent to 76 percent, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

A lot of people might be uncomfortable with the experiment and its results. But the statistically complicated, politically toxic, and morally vexing question is: should they be?

For decades, superintendents across the country have agreed about the perplexing logic of class and education: “An all-poor school system can’t be sustained and all-rich one can’t be justified,” explains Michael Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools. “Constantly trying to balance those two imperatives is very difficult.”

In the District, those numbers are also intertwined with the old taboo of race. The bulk of DCPS’ population, for years, has been mostly low-income blacks. Whites either didn’t enroll or ran for the nearest exit after elementary school. Activists from time to time demanded changes in academic programs. But no one dared discuss the system’s racial makeup.

Now, however, Rhee is simultaneously responding to and attempting to create a new demand among previously uninterested school populations. Shifting demographics is one clear reason for her actions. The District, once “Chocolate City,” is becoming, as the saying goes, “Vanilla Village.” Between 2000 and 2008, the white population grew by 5 percentage points—the largest growth than any city except Atlanta—according to a Brookings Institution report. By 2008, 44 percent of District residents were white.

“A new image of urban America is in the making,” William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer and co-author of the report, told The Associated Press.” What used to be white flight is turning into ‘bright flight’ to the cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction.”

Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, whose district includes Capitol Hill, says he has seen dramatic changes in his neighborhood’s young families: “They are choosing to stay and to attend neighborhood schools.” And the choice of public schools is no longer entirely voluntary, thanks to contemporary D.C.’s real estate prices. Wells’ constituents may look rich on paper, but big mortgages have made it nearly impossible for many of them to send their children to private schools—as a previous generation once did.

“Let’s be realistic,” says Derlega. “What does private school costs—$20,000?” In other words: He needs DCPS, whether or not its chancellor invites him for tea.

That means there is a larger, more racially and economically diverse, array of parents making demands on the same school system. On one side there are folks like the Derlegas and Sehgal. On another side is an older coterie of mainly African-American parents, many of whom never had sufficient resources to move or opt for private school. Longtime residents who knew how to navigate the system often circumvented low-performing or unsafe neighborhood schools by getting their children in out-of-boundary slots at facilities in other wards—often in the very schools Rhee now wants to make attractive to newcomers. The more of them she recruits, the fewer slots there are left for kids from neighborhoods that have never gentrified.

It’s no wonder that some black parents see the recruitment drive not as a way to grow the pie, but as a zero-sum battle over resources and options.

Race talk can be dangerous. Comments get twisted. Accusations are flung wildly. Add a heated political contest like the one between Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and such a conversation becomes downright deadly.

Rhee, who has figured prominently in this year’s election, assiduously avoids such discussions. She has ample evidence of their dangers. Consider the fracas last year over Rose L. Hardy Middle School, a predominantly black school in a mainly white neighborhood. Appearing before the Citizens Association of Georgetown, Rhee announced she would make changes that wouldn’t “turn” the school overnight but would boost options for Ward 2 residents.

“What was that supposed to mean?” Keenan Keller, a Ward 1 resident and Hardy parent asked after reading a report on the meeting. “African-American parents have a great sensitivity to that kind of coded language.”

Rhee had decided to reassign the school’s popular principal, Patrick Pope. Pope is white. But her decision came after several white families complained, during one of the chancellor’s private living-room chats with a group of parents from Key Elementary School in Ward 3’s Palisades neighborhood, about Hardy’s academic rigor. Key is supposed to feed into Hardy. But, much to Rhee’s frustration, many of its parents were bailing out.

“[Rhee] talked about there was some confusion about the application process,“ says Candy Miles-Crocker, an African-American parent-leader and Ward 5 resident. “All of that was smoke and mirrors. The folks in Palisades didn’t get interested until Hardy had a new facility. When we were at old Hamilton school, no one wanted to come. The timing was suspicious.”

Keller and others at Hardy, including the sprinkling of white students who attend the institution and their parents, mounted an extensive campaign to retain Pope. Some people accused Rhee of catering to whites at their expense.

Those accusations may not have been accurate. But they reflected the growing tension between the chancellor and blacks in the city. A Washington Post poll released earlier this year found only 28 percent of African Americans supported Rhee, while 62 percent were dissatisfied. In 2008, 50 percent of blacks liked while 38 percent disapproved. (The 2010 poll was taken in the middle of a controversy surrounding her firing of 266 teachers, most of whom were black.)

“[Rhee and her staff] are very insensitive to the history of Washington. That doesn’t have any value in their eyes,” says Iris Toyer, a Ward 7 resident and former member of the D.C. Board of Education.

Gray, who was then pondering a run for mayor against Rhee’s boss, hauled her up before the legislature to chew her out about Hardy. The council passed a non-binding resolution condemning her actions. “Hardy was just the tip of the iceberg,” Miles-Crocker says.

Blacks remain concerned about whether Rhee is transforming the DCPS too rapidly and without them in mind. There was talk of “The Plan”—an age-old belief that whites are plotting to take back the city—when news broke DCPS was considering relocating the predominantly black Duke Ellington School of the Arts from Georgetown to a spot near Union Station. Blacks perceived the proposed move as kicking them out of a predominantly white community.

Mark Roy, who has worked to improve Eastern High School, has complained for the past year about changes there. Recently renovated, the facility resembles the best private school. But 9th grade students aren’t being enrolled. Roy says Rhee has attempted to recreate the school, phasing out the existing student population before enrolling any others. The hope is that it will be more attractive to middle-class residents living on Capitol Hill and in the surrounding gentrified neighborhoods. Meanwhile, several nonprofit organizations are vying for space in the school. That disturbs Roy. “I guess that old-adage is coming true: if you move, you lose,” he says in an e-mail.

“[Rhee] has it in her head that she can recreate these schools and they will be filled up with middle-class families,” Toyer scoffs.

Oddly, the people complaining to me are themselves middle class. So surely they can’t object to attracting their own kind, even if they are white. Further, only a few generations ago, activists—black and white—fought to end education apartheid in this country. In the District, Spottswood Bolling and 10 other students and their families took their case to court. While they lost, that suit was later combined with four others, which eventually became known as Brown vs. Board of Education. In its landmark ruling, the Supreme Court mandated desegregation of public schools. Then, as now, integration of the basic service that is public education was perceived as good for everyone—black and white, poor and rich.

Obviously, the issue is less cut-and-dry today. There’s no Orval Faubus in the schoolhouse door to fight against; the kids being brought into the system are comparatively privileged. And yet the logic of integration for its own sake ought to stand. After such a long and arduous fight, it makes little sense to imperil that dream.

The dirty little secret of education politics, though, is that there could be another reason for wanting to lure well-educated parents. For a national figure like Rhee, whose reputation will live or die on testing, it’s the quickest way to goose the scores.

“In the District in Upper Northwest where there are new facilities, residents are going to want to take their kids out of private schools and enroll them into those new facilities,” says Robert Bobb, the former president of the D.C. State Board of Education who is now the emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools. “If you bring those kids from private schools back that will definitely drive up test scores.”

Think of what happens when more affluent residents gentrify a community. Its net-worth changes and suddenly retailers, who didn’t give that neighborhood the time of day, are considering locating stores and building malls. Introduction of better-prepared students could have the same effect in DCPS.

Rhee says that recruiting whites purely to bolster test scores doesn’t serve her long-term strategy: “If what we’ve done in five years is to grow the enrollment and diversify the enrollment and brought the achievement levels up, but [when] we look at low-income black kids’ scores, they are no different than when I got here, than I would say I have failed,” she says.

She has made test scores one of the hallmarks of her administration, gaining national attention for the jump in student achievement thus far in her tenure. As the decline in this year’s scores demonstrates, sustaining the big growth is more complicated than average citizens realize.

Rhee can continue to grind out small percentage increases over the next several years by doing what she already says she’s doing—improving the teacher corps. But, if she has her sights on being U.S. education secretary, as some of her critics and supporters have suggested, then she has to make a bigger splash, quicker. The kind of splash that comes only by importing new classes of students.

There’s one glitch, however. If a critical mass of whites is reached in DCPS, for instance, it could exacerbate the achievement gap. In 2010, the difference in reading scores between black and white elementary students in DCPS was 50.21 percent; in math, it’s 51.24, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. “There is that risk,” admits Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso. Rhee says her administration has been focusing on those differences

That’s the pessimistic view. The hike in test scores could also invite more investments, including increase in federal dollars. Those two would attract better-credentialed teachers, who often scout out high performing systems. The rippling effect could help everyone. But in a polarized election year, and in an arena like education, where progress often takes years before it’s fully realized and sustained, those potential results may be a tough case to make.

Despite the city’s racial evolution, some neighborhoods remain as segregated as they were in the 1980s. But in many communities African Americans, whites and Hispanics now live in close proximity, if not perpetual harmony. Columbia Heights, areas adjacent to the H Street NE corridor, Logan Circle and Petworth, are among the city’s many gentrifying neighborhoods. But schools there continue to be largely black. Couples like the Derlegas who live in those areas are easy and natural targets for Rhee’s recruitment.

Reinoso argues that school leaders must begin to behave like marketing executives, understanding the needs of current parents, while anticipating those of future parents and inviting participation of those residents without children.

“If we have a neighborhood [based] school system, then the neighborhood school needs to be engaged in its neighborhood,” he continued, citing diaper companies as examples of what DCPS should do. “When we know there has been a child born, we can start sending post cards, telling parents when it comes time to choose a school we hope they will give DCPS a chance, and then we follow up…We should be trying to capture the market share in every neighborhood.”

The market share includes those white families in Palisades. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans says with Hyde-Addison and Key elementary schools and changes at Hardy Middle School, the only thing missing for the area is a “full purpose high school. Then we would have a whole network.”

But what happens, asks Miles-Crocker, “when you don’t have a neighborhood school?”

And that’s really the skunk at Rhee’s recruitment party. As a practical matter, she can’t just herd whites. She also has to provide good schools for African Americans, and will face especially tough scrutiny from black parents like Miles-Crocker who’ve worked hard to get their kids in out-of-boundary slots in better-regarded schools in heavily white neighborhoods—the very slots that would grow scarce if those schools repopulated with residents from nearby communities.

In the past, many whites who would have occupied those schools either fled the city or the public schools, as Wells and Toyer noted. But they are back. Don’t they have the same rights as African Americans to the schools in their communities? Shouldn’t they be invited, encouraged even to attend those institutions?

Rhee’s response has been an unequivocal yes. But the politics of that answer are dangerous. “Whites around Hardy said they wanted to go there. She said all right I’ll just move the blacks out. That’s separate but equal. You can’t do that,” one high-placed government official who requested anonymity says criticizing the chancellor.

Cherita Whiting, the head of the Ward 4 Education Council, calls herself “a personal friend” of the chancellor. They often have private conversations and she’s even taken Rhee’s two daughters to Chuck E. Cheese. While she likes the direction of DCPS reforms, she has disagreed with Rhee’s approach—from firing teachers to moving Pope. “[But] I don’t see anything racial with Michelle,” Whiting adds.

“The chancellor decided to focus on Hardy and other schools out of a core commitment to having schools serve their neighborhoods,” says Reinoso. In Wells’ gentrifying Ward 6, parents are racing to J.O. Wilson—one of Rhee’s recruitment schools in 2009. “We’ve had the greatest renaissance of any urban neighborhood,” Wells says. “Those schools aren’t magnets. They’re just neighborhood schools.”

And that gets back to a tricky question of democracy: How do you serve one group without injuring the other? How, for example, can Rhee attract families in the western part of Ward 2 without alienating African-American parents and without being labeled a racist?

“It’s a balancing act that nobody ever gets completely right. Nobody feels like they were treated fairly in the process,” says Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools.

In D.C., there are plenty of spokespeople who can amplify that feeling, using the logic that it’s unfair for DCPS to focus on newbies. “I like diversity,” says Miles-Crocker. “[But] I’m tired of the emphasis on middle-class white families, especially when it comes at the expense of those who have been there.”

“I don’t know where she thinks the rest of the kids are going to go,” says Toyer. “Her strategy leaves out parents who have stuck by DCPS. It focuses on the ‘new parents’ at the exclusion of the others.”

Rhee responds to the fears of parents who worry about lost slots in gentrified neighborhood schools by arguing that her efforts at reinvention have also improved schools in non-gentrified neighborhoods—the sorts of schools parents might once have shunned in favor of a bus ride across town to places like Hardy. She cites, for example, Sousa Middle School in Ward 7, where the principal, Dwan Jordan, has increased test scores, enhanced the teacher corps and added a music program among other things.

“What I think is going to be the results of what he’s doing,” says Rhee, “is that Ward 7 middle-class families who had been sending their kids to Hardy or [Alice] Deal [middle schools—in Ward 2 and 3, respectively] actually will look at [Sousa] and now say we don’t have to drive across town.” If that happens, then turning Hardy and other schools like it just got easier.

Like it or not, the diversity politics of the future is not going to look like the binary, zero-sum version that has long prevailed in the District.

“I’m from New York. So I am used to a diverse population. It’s important to me that my child’s school is not only diverse, but reflective of its neighborhood,” Sehgal says.

“It’s not a black or white thing,” says Derlega. “African-American parents, parents of Chinese kids, Swedish kids, Hispanic kids, white kids, we all want the same thing.”

But it hasn’t always been a given that the District will embrace parents like Sehgal and Derlaga who say they want to stay put and help improve their local schools. Derlaga says the DCPS staff, including Margery Yeager with the Office of Transformation Management, have been sensitive to the dynamic that will greet families like his. For example, there was a conference call held for parents to discuss how to enter a new school community.

Even as the “new parents” have embraced diversity, they’re not apologizing for wanting rigorous academic programs—and DCPS seems to be channeling that desire. Derlega, Sehgal and others arriving this year have been involved for the past several months in the selection of teachers for their children’s classes, something some DCPS principals encourage. They have followed program changes being proposed for the schools. Derlega has been conducting fundraising research.

“I am not alone. There are individual parents who are socially responsible and realize you need to be part of the process,” he adds.

Wells says many of the newcomers in the Ward 6 schools are “sophisticated” and are “navigating issues far better than those before them…It’s not all perfect,” he continues. “There has been some stereotyping on both sides. There are tensions. But they are navigating them.”

It may be hard for folks like Miles-Crocker, Toyer and other African Americans to watch the chancellor butter up affluent, mostly white, newcomers when there are so many poor black people who have been stuck in DCPS and badly served by it. But, truth be told, it’s the right thing to do. No one community is entitled to public education. It belongs to all of us. That was the message Thurgood Marshall and others attempted to deliver decades ago. It’s one we can’t afford to forget. Society really is made better when we’re all in the same schoolhouse, learning to appreciate our differences while celebrating our common bond.

Now, that’s the kind of dangerous race talk worth having.