Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools and founder of StudentsFirst, has been called a radical for her approach to reforming public schools.
But to Rhee, her approach – cutting a central office bureaucracy, removing ineffective instructors and closing failing schools – seemed like common sense.
In fact, after four years of serving as schools chancellor, from 2007 to 2010, her approached resulted in significantly improved student performance and increased graduation rates amongst D.C. students.
But her approach also has garnered sharp criticism from educators, reformers and teachers unions, all of whom raise questions about the legitimacy of Rhee's tactics and measurements for success.
Still, Rhee believed strongly in her mission and in 2010, formed StudentsFirst, a community-led movement designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students and administrators towards meaningful public school reform.
StudentsFirstNY launched in New York City April 2012 with five chapters in East Harlem, Crown Heights, East New York, Brownsville and Bed-Stuy, neighborhoods with some of the lowest-performing schools.
StudentsFirstNY Bed-Stuy chapter meets every other Saturday at 1:00 p.m. at the Marcy branch Brooklyn Public Library, located at 617 Dekalb Avenue.
Darlene Boston, a parent organizer in Bed-Stuy, said currently, the chapter is working towards raising awareness and building membership and involvement amongst local parents.
“A lot of parents in Bed-Stuy feel intimidated when they go to advocate for their children. So, we’re holding workshops to teach the proper way to approach administration,” said Boston.
But Boston and her team are following in Rhee’s footsteps, challenged with the battle for widespread community support. Aside from teacher evaluations, StudentsFirst also backs the charter school movement, which pits the organization in contrast with the position of the United Federation of Teachers.
“We just want to make sure there’s a quality teacher in every classroom for students that don’t have that right now,” said Chandra Hayslett, director of communications for StudentsFirstNY.
“And you would think that everybody would be jumping to work with us, because who doesn’t want that?"
Tenicka Boyd, director of organizing for StudentsFirstNY, added, everyone in the school system – not just teachers – should be open to a performance evaluation.
“Everyone should be held accountable, and no one in this system is above evaluation,” said Boyd, who has a 6-year-old daughter that attends a Brooklyn public school. “We should be putting our best teachers, not our worst teachers in low-income communities of color, struggling communities. We should be giving more resources and not less resources.”
“If I’m a teacher and I’m not open for evaluation, then I’m not open to grow or learn,” Boston added.
“Nobody in this system – teachers, parents, students, principals, governors, mayors-- is above criticism,” said Boyd. “So it’s very important for us as parents, as the community to step in and say not on our watch.”
The next StudentsFirstNY meeting of the Bed-Stuy chapter is Saturday, March 9, 1:00 p.m. at the Marcy Branch Library.