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Finding Good Principals Proves Critical to D.C. Schools Reform

Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee closed 23 schools and fired 40 principals last summer as part of an overhaul of the public school system. John Merrow reports on one principal's reaction to Rhee's dramatic approach and how her reform efforts are faring.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And, speaking of education, one of the experiments being observed closely around the country is what's happening in the Washington, D.C., schools.

    The "NewsHour" special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has been chronicling those efforts.

    Tonight, he reports on the plans to replace some principals.

  • MAN:

    Wait for me on the field, and let's walk.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    At Ron Brown Middle School in Washington, D.C., principal Darrin Slade is on alert.

  • DARRIN SLADE, Principal, Ronald H. Brown Middle School:

    If a child doesn't see you, a child will act up. A child may fight. If I didn't go outside, there would be — we would have fights outside every other day.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Principal Slade has his hands full. This year, his school received students from two neighboring schools that were closed, more than doubling his student body.

    He's not alone. To cut costs, chancellor Michelle Rhee has asked principals across the district to adapt to dramatic changes and make big academic gains.

    Do you feel there's been a kind of cultural shift in the public school system here?

  • DARRIN SLADE:

    Last two years, there has been a 100 percent cultural shift, 100 percent.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Washington schools look very different since Rhee took office in June 2007. Rhee is making drastic changes to 27 schools that have been failing for years under the federal law known as No Child Left Behind. And, this summer, she closed 23 under-enrolled schools for good, relocating about 3,000 students and 400 teachers.

    Michelle Rhee has been warned that trying to do too much too fast could actually damage an already failing system. But the chancellor seems to have only one gear, forward, and one speed, all-out.

    She's often asked what she counts on to ensure success. Her answer never varies: people.

    MICHELLE RHEE, Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools: Human capital, absolutely, no ifs, ands or buts. If you have great people, they can overcome, You know, continuing challenges with the system as well.

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