Spinning the Schools

So you're new Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and your reputation, the mayor's political future and, indeed, the success of more than 50,000 students are riding on your ability to fix the public schools. What are you going to do to ensure you look good?

You bring in the professional spinners.

That's what Rhee did this week when she hired New Future Communications to a three-month contract to overhaul the school system's communications office.

As with the system at large, reforming the communications office will be no easy feat. In past years, that department has developed a reputation as a sluggish, defensive bunker where requests for information go to die.

Shortly after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) downgraded the Board of Education and took control of the system in June, he dispatched an aide, Mafara Hobson, to assist Rhee. But now Rhee has added a more sophisticated layer of expertise to her publicity arm.

New Future, based in Washington, is the creation of Jamal Simmons, a national political media consultant who has worked on the campaigns of Wesley Clark and Al Gore. He was Gore's Florida spokesman during the recount battle of the 2000 election.

Simmons also happens to be a former classmate of Rhee's during their days at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government a decade ago.

Simmons said in a recent interview that he was friendly with Rhee during their graduate student days but had not spoken with her in years. When Fenty hired her in June, Simmons said, he emailed her to congratulate her and offer his company's assistance. It didn't take long for her to come calling.

"We were hired to provide strategic counsel and daily support to the chancellor," Simmons said. "Part of that helping is to figure out how to reorganize the communications department and to make sure we accomplish the goals of the new administrator.

"A big issue here is how to continue to show people progress is being made along the way. The mayor has been pretty clear and the chancellor has been clear that they want to keep the public updated on what is happening."

Notably, New Future has never worked for a school system before, mostly focusing on politics.

Simmons described ramping up the energy of the school communications staff to match that of the mayor's office. He envisions an office that does not wait for reporters to call in but rather highlights important policy initiatives as they are implemented.

Expect Simmons, and his partner Bill Buck, to be heavily involved in a search for a new, full-time school spokesperson, even though he declined to comment on whether such a search would take place.

"What [Rhee] is trying to do is a more activist media department," he said, "not really a typical government office where they get a request and answer it, but one that will be more proactive."

Of course, there is a fine line between releasing information to reporters -- and the public -- and spinning it to highlight only the good news. In New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) took over the schools in 2002, parents and reporters have complained that the mayor's communications office selectively releases information and routinely fails to respond to requests for public information.

Simmons said his charge is to get information out -- good or bad.

"We want to make sure the community is aware of progress, and also places were we still have work to do," he said. "We're committed to letting people know where we're falling short."

By  |  August 21, 2007; 3:56 PM ET
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Posted by: prof7prof | November 10, 2007 09:10 PM

Spinning Deception Into the Illusion of Progress

The Monday evening, December 17, community meeting regarding the pre-k-to-8th grade proposal for Stevens Elementary and Francis JHS (both in ward 2) revealed some rather frightening truths. First, the Fenty-Rhee-Reinoso takeover crew is even more unorganized when it comes to community meetings than the school board ever was. If they can't figure out how to run a public meeting, how in the real world can they run a school system? Informational chaos was aggravated by pretentious scripted rhetoric that deflected important questions with empty answers. The takeover crew kept forgetting they were dealing with truly avid and aware parents, with no patience for nonsense and bureaucratic happy talk.

Second, and most important, many of Stevens' parents feel that their "babies" will be unsafe in the same building as Francis children. I am the parent of a Francis child. While our tweens and teens are experiencing their share of growing pains, they are not in the habit of demoralizing or biting off the heads of smaller children. I don't doubt this perception was fostered as a divide and conquer tactic by the takeover crew.

Nevertheless, I fully and respectfully understand the concerns and frustrations of the Stevens parents. Since DCPS schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has not presented a clear and competent plan for its implementation, parents quite naturally are suspicious of their pre-kindergarten through 8th grade formula. When undertaken correctly and competently, the formula can provide a nurturing transition through the scary, confusing time of puberty for both parents and children. It must, however, be consistently given the proper logistical, programmatic and accountable resources to genuinely succeed.

Given recent reports of DCPS and D.C. government budget deficits, and the fact that all of the proposed school closings were revealed by a cowardly leak to the press, Francis and Stevens parents or teachers have no reason to believe that these resources will be provided. This proposal, therefore, simply appears to be nothing more than a setup for failure and the basis for a potential state sponsored land sale of taxpayer-owned public school property to private developers. No doubt, it will be revealed that the property sales are linked to fiscal imbalances and bogus revenue projections.

What happened to genuine transparency and timely information to the public and D.C. Council? What happened to the millions of taxpayer dollars both school and D.C. government officials said was available for DCPS improvements during mayor Fenty's 2006 campaign and early 2007? Now we heard this December that the actual money needed for academic and structural improvements was "underestimated." Nevertheless, many six-figure salaries have been doled out for dubious duties and invisible results. Is it possible that District citizens are on the verge of another large-scale corruption scandal of misappropriated money? Follow the money in 2008 and beyond.

As a parent, I am a full supporter of the pre-k-to-8th grade school model, and have publicly advocated on its behalf. As a political activist, I am an even firmer advocate for community control within this model - as in citizen control of public schools. Just to be clear, citizen control is beyond the "parent involvement" touted and preferred by officials who view parents as outsiders. As such, I fully respect the desire of Stevens ES parents to keep their school open. Equally, and justifiably, I fully believe that Francis JHS should remain open, and be given the necessary resources to continue to provide a safe and empowered learning environment for our undervalued middle grade children.

Nationally, the middle grades education community realizes that in the middle years, the window for preparing our children for adulthood is growing smaller. We know that an environment that includes adults that are mistrustful of them and view them as predators is detrimental to their development and could push them to the point of alienation and no return. The same will be true when our little learners in elementary school become middle school students.

They are all our babies. Our shared concern for their personal safety and academic well-being should be just as strong for all District of Columbia students. We must work together as a community of united parents and teachers to provide the best learning environments for the success of all our students. Failure is not an option. No doubt, many of our public officials continue to prove through their actions, disinformation and secrecy they have a different agenda.

Miriam Moore,
Vice Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control

Posted by: dcindependents | December 24, 2007 10:25 PM

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