Four Years On, Checking in With Rhee’s DC ‘Army of Believers’

During Michelle Rhee’s tenure as the head of the Washington D.C. public school system, she presided over a wide-ranging staffing overhaul that saw over a third of the district’s principals and administrators fired and replaced. Rhee’s 2008 recruits were called “an army of believers” by a the non-profit New Leaders for New Schools. It has been four years since that revolutionary event, and The Washington Post’s Bill Turque checks in to find out what happened to the the army since then.

The news, it turns out, isn’t great. It isn’t really a surprise since the new hires were often placed at the most difficult and struggling schools in the city, and those are notorious for extensive staff churn. Still, the attrition rate is high, even when that factor is taken into account. Turque estimates that nearly 60% of people who were hired by Rhee in 2008 are now either out of the district entirely or are in positions different from where they began. This year continues the trend, with 17 school principals, 3 of them Rhee hires, have announced that they’re moving on at the end of June. A few did move from the principalships into senior administrative roles within the district, but most just left.

Principal attrition under Chancellor Kaya Henderson is not as heavy as in the Rhee era. The 17 changes represent about 14 percent of the system’s principal posts. But the churn is considerable compared to Montgomery County Public Schools, where the 10 percent turnover in 2011 (the most recent year available) was “unusually high,” according to spokesman Dana Tofig. For the previous three years, he said, turnover was between 5 and 6 percent.

Some principals leaving this year are district veterans. Angela Tilghman who’s resigning her position as the head of Garfield Elementary School, was the winner of The Post’s Distinguished Leadership Award in 2004.

The atmosphere surrounding these departures is a far cry from that greeting the initial hiring frenzy in 2008, when the new leaders were full of ambition, fire and used speech generously peppered with educational jargon.

“Every child in the building, I want to know what their weaknesses are,” said Dwan Jordon, 35, an assistant principal in Prince George’s County who turned down a promotion there to take over one of the District’s weakest schools, Sousa Middle School in Southeast Washington.

Dwan Jordan resigned from his post at Sousa in 2011 to take over the principalship of Suitland High School, in Forestville, Maryland.