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At 9 a.m., Hart‘s graduating 8th grade class of 2008 gathered in the hallways leading to the school’s small auditorium. Wearing their Sunday best, students snapped photos of each other, hugged their favorite teachers and generally basked in the one commodity the hallways had over the auditorium: air conditioning.
If the scene was chaotic, if the ceremony blew past its 9 a.m. start time, you could forgive the students and their parents for wanting to linger in the AC. The cool hallways were the only evidence of buff-and-scrub, Michelle Rhee‘s shiny optimism and blunt accountability, and Mayor Fenty‘s stubborn focus. Everything else about Hart’s graduation was depressingly old school.
As parents walked into the auditorium, they were handed a program. The program’s cover bore a picture of a gold cap, a crisp rolled-up diploma, two white rosees, and a quote—-“Success Is Determined by the Choices You Make.” It all suggested Hart had its act together for at least the moment it took to design and print the program. After the processional, parents and students settled into the stifling room. And several things became immediately clear:
*There were not enough seats for everyone.
*Hart’s P.A. system might have been considered high-tech in the ’60s.
*It was too damn hot.
*The scheduled program that parents were now using as a fan wasn’t exactly an indicator of how things were going to go.
*It was too damn hot.
Audience members could hear every third word. If you were inclined to be against prayer in school, it was hard to muster any anger at hearing the opening benediction rendered as sort of oral Mad Libs in which sentences ended in muffled blanks and verbs and nouns were left up to you.
Soon enough, Ward 8 Councilmember-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. skipped possibly six places in the program to give a quick off-the-cuff speech that swerved between confessing his own missteps and encouraging the audience to call Fenty about the busted AC. At one point, he labored through a call-and-response with the crowd—- getting them to shout back the 727 number they were supposed to dial to register their beef with the heat.
The P.A. was no help to the aging politico. Only phrases could be easily heard: “Work for it,” “But I got up,” and then the rousing finale: “Respect each other. Love each other. So I can’t stay long.”
Barry then gave the valedictorian—Kiera Coleman—a check for $1,000. He then gave the runner-up kid a check for $500. A highlight.
The second highlight: Hearing Charity Franklin and La’Nora Smith (her name misspelled in the program) duet on “Don’t Wait.” Their bold American-Idol-ready voices didn’t fade even after the microphone cut out. Even at their age, they understood that the show must go on.
The show didn’t quite go on. It hobbled. The keynote speaker was a no show. If parents expected a little uplift from Willie Bennett Jr., Hart‘s principal, they were disppointed. Instead, they got to watch the man sit on stage and peak at his watch during the singing of the school song.
Since late May, this was all the 8th graders were required to do. They had been told classes were over. They only had to come for graduation rehearsals. This meant learning the school song and other important skills like swaying in time, standing up in unison, and sitting down in unison.
This was Bennett’s last graduation. He is one of the principals being let go. School staff say that his tenure was marked by inconsistent discipline of students, an addiction to suspensions (one staffer estimates more than 1,000 suspensions were given out this year), zero attention to teacher needs, hallways that were always chaotic, and poor communication skills. “He’s one of the most frustrating people I’ve ever had to deal with,” says one teacher. “No accountability….There’s no leadership.” We wrote about one of his wacky ideas earlier this school year.
The Hart teacher talked about coming home from the middle school in tears. A school administrator talked about days where they worked another six hours after the final bell rang. Another staffer talked about the kids she knew that still needed extra attention. A member of the school’s security team said it felt like Bennett cared more about athletics than class work.
As the students swayed to the final verse of the Hart song, the hallway outside smelled like cigarette smoke. An entrance door had been propped with the stub of a broken trophy.
The class of ’08 finally made their way out of the hot auditorium. The students gathered outside to take more pictures with their teachers, parents and friends.
Bennett made his way outside too, standing alone, off to the side. Of the ceremony, he said: “It went well.”
Bennett says he’d like to stay in DCPS: “I’m going to try to.”
When I get a chance to bring up the criticism of his tenure and the AC problem, Bennett’s response was textbook. “Who’s saying that?” he asks. Staffers throughout the year complained that he held personal vendettas against outspoken Hart employees.
Bennett goes on to say he’s just not familiar with the critique of a mismanaged Hart. “I don’t know,” he says. “We’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years.”