Portrait of an Inbox

Monday, March 10, 6:45 a.m.: The first e-mail of the week arrives on Margie Yeager’s Palm Treo, from an elementary school principal in the District of Columbia who needs volunteers to restock his library shelves. Yeager reads the e-mail in bed a few minutes after waking. Eventually she gets up, walks into her kitchen, and grabs a Diet Coke from the fridge. It’s the first of many, because when your job is to fix the worst public school district in America, you need all the caffeine you can get.

After showering and getting dressed, Yeager drives her beat-up ’99 Volvo sedan down Connecticut Avenue to the central office of the D.C. Public Schools, near Union Station. She continues to answer e-mail in the car (“usually” at stoplights, she maintains) before arriving at 825 North Capitol Street. She takes an elevator to the top floor and walks to her cubicle, just up the hall from the office of the district’s new chancellor, Michelle Rhee.

A small, quiet, and unassuming twenty-eight-year old former elementary school teacher, Yeager could pass for eighteen. You wouldn’t peg her as the holder of a Harvard graduate degree in public policy, or a key actor in Rhee’s ambitious plan to reform a school system that combines some of the highest per-student spending levels and worst test scores in the country. Yeager directs Rhee’s “critical response team”five talented young professionals who man a sort of constituent services war room, fielding a daily flood of hundreds of letters, phone calls, and e-mails from teachers, parents, and the public. Rhee has directed that every request must receive an initial response within twenty-four hours. This is already a small revolution for public education in the nation’s capital.

Things are quiet in the central office todayor, as they say in the movies, a little too quiet. The reason is that there are ninety-eight fewer people here than there were on Friday afternoon, when Rhee decimated the bloated administrative bureaucracy (which operated with an approximate ratio of one bureaucrat for every fifty-four students) by firing 10 percent of the central office staff. Now, everyone is nervous about what the reaction will be.

Rumors about possible firings had swirled for weeks, after Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty pushed the city council to reclassify hundreds of nonunion school district civil servants as “at will” employees who could be let go at any time. After the first termination letters were delivered midday Friday, the media descended, and footage of distraught ex-employees being escorted out the front door by security guards made the evening news. The next day, the firings were the subject of the Washington Post‘s lead front-page story, which was full of threats of lawsuits and anonymous quotes from aggrieved workers and indignant city councilmen.

9:00 a.m.: The assistant press secretary stops at Yeager’s cubicle armed with talking points. Yeager and her staff should refer to employees as having been “separated,” not “terminated,” she instructs. She asks Yeager about the reaction over the weekend. Surprisingly, there were only four messages about the firings, three completely positive, one cautiously so. But that was the weekendsurely today will bring the deluge.

Concern about the public response to the firings is especially high because this moment has been so long anticipated. Previous school chiefs wanted to clean up the central office, but lacked the legal power and political cover because they reported to a number of disparate authorities: a hybrid elected/appointed school board; the mayor; a city council that saw the school system as a font of patronage jobs; and, ultimately, the U.S. Congress. Unable to challenge the bureaucracy directly, reform-minded superintendents focused on creating new academic programs in the classrooms. Some reforms worked better than others, but all were ultimately poisoned by a culture of neglect and incompetence in the central office. Then, last year, Fenty was sworn in as mayor on a pledge to reform D.C.’s schools. He wrested control of the district from the school board, then hired Rhee and gave her a free hand to take on the bureaucracy, in ways small and large.

When she took office last June, Rhee found that people were surprised and grateful simply to get their e-mails returned. On the logic that they would be even more appreciative if their problems were actually addressed, Rhee created the critical response team and implemented a software program that tracks every new contact and request, and the person responsible for solving itinformation that is displayed on Yeager’s Treo and desktop computer.

9:10 a.m.: Yeager opens a new message, from the parent of a disabled child. She gets a lot of thesespecial education in D.C. is a disaster. Because the district is chronically unable to comply with federal mandates, it operates under various judicial consent orders while simultaneously being embroiled in a huge class action lawsuit. Taxpayers shell out $126 million per year for private school tuition on behalf of special education students the district can’t manage to serve. Much of the hard work of fixing this problem must be done at the central office, where blown deadlines and mishandled assessments can lead to lawsuits and expensive private placements down the road.

9:17 a.m.: An e-mail arrives from the “Ask the Chancellor” section of the district Web site. “Please do not waver,” it says. “Thank you for everything you are doing for the kids.” A half hour later, another e-mail: “Hopefully this firing will prove to be a step in the right direction. Keep up the good work and keep fighting for the kids.”

10:30 a.m.: Rhee’s chief of staff stops by, also asking about the weekend responses to the firings. So far, the chancellor’s office hasn’t received any calls on the subject.

10:50 a.m.: A local food vendor e-mails to ask if the district would be interested in a fat- and cholesterol-free potato chip he has invented, as a “nutritional snack” for students.

More e-mails pour in. Yeager coughs; she says she has a slight case of bronchitis. She sends a few more responses before convening a meeting at 11:10 with a new staff member who was hired away from McKinsey to help with Rhee’s school consolidation effort. Nearly 30 percent of D.C. public school students have moved to charter schools over the last decade, and, partly as a result, some public schools are now half empty or worse. Rhee plans to shutter twenty-three low-enrollment schools, bringing the total of schools in the district down to 121. Initially this proposal created an outcry, but the expected protests fizzled when only a few people bothered to show up at meetings arranged to discuss the issue. Now the closings are seen as inevitable, leaving only the task of moving thousands of students to new schools next fall with a minimum of disruption.

11:30 a.m.: Yeager quickly moves up the hall to another meeting. A parent is complaining that a student who had been suspended for beating up her son is still hanging around the school premises. Violence is a chronic problem in D.C. schools, and many of Yeager’s toughest cases involve students from households burdened by poverty, abuse, drug addiction, or mental illness. “I like to tell myself that if I just work hard enough, we can resolve virtually anything,” Yeager says. When even that’s not enough, she continues, it’s “hard for me to swallow.”

Noon: One of the team members calls from a nearby office: there’s been an assault at an elementary school. Yeager empties a packet of instant oatmeal into a plastic bowl and fills it with hot water from the cooler. “Breakfast,” she says.

12:20 p.m.: Yeager takes the elevator down to the sixth floor to meet with the human resources department. The mood is somber; a number of the fired employees worked here, and some desks are piled with boxes holding files and personal belongings.

Yeager understands the importance of the HR office intimately: from 2001 to 2003, she taught second grade in D.C.’s Simon Elementary School, back when there was no critical response team. At one point the district stopped sending her paychecks. Later, it accidentally canceled her health insurance. Phone calls to HR were ignored, meaning that Yeager had to find time to come here to the central officeor, as she referred to it then, “this horrible, crazy place.” The experience was so traumatic that when the district failed to refund her union dues (which had been embezzled by the union president and squandered on, variously, furs, handbags, shoes, Tiffany place settings, and a double-barreled shotgun) Yeager didn’t even bother to call anyone. Now, many of the people who e-mail Yeager are teachers dealing with the kinds of problems that she once faced.

1:25 p.m.: Yeager and her colleagues debate whether an e-mailed business inquiry written with questionable grammar is legitimate or some kind of school-specific Nigerian spam. The critical response team is an eclectic groupone member has a graduate degree in forestry, another is a Teach for America alum, another came from the local chapter of Concerned Black Men. But they’re all the kind of smart, youngish, high-energy people that typically gravitat toward congressional offices and think tanks, not a municipal bureaucracy.

2:30 p.m.: Yeager finishes sorting through the queue of the day’s new problems, and thus can begin work on solving some of them. She’s also vetting candidates for a new team member who will focus on special education, and creating a directory of phone numbers, offices, and e-mail addresses for everyone in the central office, because there isn’t one now.

2:45 p.m.: A maintenance problem. This is another of Rhee’s priorities, as years of neglect have left even the newer school buildings in disrepair. Two weeks ago, a rat was discovered living in the walls of Simon Elementary, Yeager’s old school. The initial response was to kill it and seal up the wall, until the rat started to rot and emit a powerful stench, which necessitated tearing the wall back open, vacuuming out the corpse, and sealing the wall up again.

3:20 p.m.: Everyone pauses for ten minutes to discuss the folly of Eliot Spitzer, who is about to go on television and gamely suggest that surreptitiously wiring money to pay for the transportation of a high-class prostitute across state lines is a “private matter.”

3:50 p.m.: Follow-up about the assaulted elementary school student, who had been hit with a chair. An ambulance was called as a precaution, but the student appears to be fine.

5:45 p.m.: An e-mail arrives from an airman stationed in Iraq who read about the firings on the Post Web site and was reminded of an old joke: What do you call one thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. “Please continue to make the tough decisions,” he says, “and let the naysayers carp all they wish.”

6:45 p.m.: Most of the central office employees have gone home for the day, but the critical response team is still at work. Yeager’s team hasn’t received a single phone call or e-mail from anyone who believes that paring down the central office was a bad idea. Nor did the press secretary or the person who answers Rhee’s phones. The morning’s talking points went unused.

7:10 p.m.: Yeager turns off her computer and heads for the exit, her to-do list longer than ever. She has dinner with a high school student she’s mentoring, then she drives home at 9:30, checking her Treo all the way. She turns on the TV, watches Medium, and pops in a DVD. The last e-mail of the daytechnically, it’s the first one of the next dayarrives at 12:29 a.m., from a parent who is upset about the site of her child’s high school graduation ceremony. It could have been a lot worse, just like the day itself. And in D.C., that’s progress.

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Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.