When schools become the center of a campaign in America's most political city, principals get a lesson in crisis management, children a lesson in government and parents a lesson in activism. At least that's the case with Georgetown's Hardy Middle School. During a political maelstrom centered on schools, Hardy Middle School still has children to teach and is beginning the process of healing after a tumultuous 2009-2010 school year.
Principal Dana Nerenberg started her first day of school Aug. 23. She took over the helm of Hardy Middle School for former principal Patrick Pope, while maintaining her position as principal at Hyde-Addison.
Hardy is a school with an active and outspoken parent body, made up of in-boundary and out-of-boundary parents. It is this parent body that first cried foul last December when District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee informed parents that Pope was out and Nerenberg was in.
What ensued has been well-documented in other publications; in short, parents fiercely objected to having Pope removed and to other changes Rhee proposed for the school. The fallout from Rhee's announcement have left many Hardy parents frustrated by the changes and others bewildered by the skepticism facing the beloved principal.
Parents along with many teachers are playing the "wait and see" game for the 2010-2011 school year, according to Keenan Keller, an out-of-boundary parent whose daughter is an eighth-grader this year. Keller and his daughter defended Pope before District Council meetings. Pope was removed to start a special arts cluster school, though this school year he works from a desk downtown without any school to lead.
Keller first found out about Nerenberg's appointment "from an email that was sent out from Hyde-Addison before it was actually announced to the parent body at Hardy. That was a failure; it was an abject communications failure," he said.
He sympathized with the delicate balancing game Nerenberg was thrust into.
"It's not a situation that anyone would want to invite ... to come into a community that was subject to this kind of emotional upheaval," Keller said. Though frustrated he added that repairing the relationship between the parents and the chancellor is "not really [Nerenberg's] responsibility," but that she is "doing what she can." Thus far, Keller credits Nerenberg and her administrative team for being "of the mind of communication." That's a start.
Keller saves his venom for Rhee, saying there is little the chancellor could do to repair the relationship with parents.
"Her credibility has been so dramatically undermined ... I think the best thing for a community like Hardy, quite honestly, is for the chancellor to leave it alone and to let the process work itself out, if possible," he said.
For her part, Nerenberg said she is building relationships. "That is so crucial and that takes time. And so as I'm getting to know people, really just listening to what they have to say and being as responsive as I can, in a customer service oriented way," she said. To address concerns about communication, the principal now e-mails a weekly newsletter to keep parents informed of events, programming and other news from the school. After all, "middle schoolers are not necessarily the best source of information," she said.
Parent Pete Eisler has a newly minted sixth-grader and another child at Hyde-Addison. He worked with Nerenberg during her time at Hyde and had only positive things to say about her.
"She'll listen to the teachers, she'll listen to the parents and when she sees opportunities to make things better, she'll do it, that's her m.o.," Eisler said.
As for the previous controversy at Hardy, Eisler did not place much stake in it—"nothing's forever in public schools." He added that Hyde saw a good principal leave and that parents worried about the change. The replacement principal "happened to be [Nerenberg] and she took a great school and made it even better," he said.
For this school year Hardy added 170 sixth-graders as well as 70 new students in seventh and eighth grade. These new students and their parents were invited to barbeques, orientation days and back to school night. Many, like Eisler, were already familiar with Nerenberg and vaguely aware of the dramatic year before.
Parents of returning students, however, still carry the baggage of their previous efforts and take a wary approach to its new leader. Some were suspicious about changing the school's schedule from a modified block schedule to a more traditional schedule.
Allan Assarson, a Hardy parent, said that though Rhee and Nerenberg, "promised that Hardy would stay exactly the same. There wouldn't have been a more fundamental change," referring to the new schedule.
The schedule change was insignificant to Eiseler; he did not know there was a difference. "I think probably all the sixth-grade parents or probably many of them are pretty oblivious to this," he said.
Nerenberg explained the switch a a more traditional schedule, saying the decision was about "equity for students, equity for teachers." Nerenberg added, "it's my desire to honor and respect what was in place before, but as an instructional leader, it's my responsibility to make decisions moving forward." The previous schedule, she said, "did not accomplish those goals."
Make no mistake, music and arts classes are valuable for supporting "the social and emotional needs and the development of the whole student, which is so vital at the middle grades," Nerenberg said. But sometimes students need extra academic support. The changes she made to the schedule allow those children who need extra support in reading or math to have that help as "part of their core schedule" at the cost of a music or an arts class.
Nerenberg's plan is not only to focus on test scores, but also to work on participation rates in advanced courses like algebra. The goal? To ensure that, "students leave us really well prepared for the high school of their choice and ultimately the college of their choice."
Nerenberg is more than aware of the battle for hearts and minds she wages as she tries to manage two schools and push both into the upper echelons of the DCPS.
"There's a tension between understanding and empathizing with the challenges the community went through last year, that it continues to feel, you know it just doesn't go away," she said. "But also our seventh-graders are only seventh-graders for 180 days and so [I am] really making sure that those 180 days are magnificent for each of them."