An exam for D.C.’s would-be schools chief

Mr. Fere­bee has a promis­ing pedi­gree but de­serves scru­tiny from the D.C. Coun­cil.

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WHEN KAYA HEN­DER­SON re­signed as schools chan­cel­lor, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) by­passed in­ter­nal can­di­dates to select some­one from out­side the sys­tem. Her choice was forced to re­sign af­ter about one year when it was re­vealed that he had used his po­si­tion to place his daugh­ter in a cov­eted high school slot. Now, Ms. Bowser has again picked an out­side ed­u­ca­tor to lead the Dis­trict’s im­prov­ing but still trou­bled pub­lic schools sys­tem. Hope­fully, this time she got it right; the early signs are en­cour­ag­ing.

In choos­ing In­di­anapo­lis Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Lewis D. Fere­bee to re­place disgraced for­mer chan­cel­lor Ant­wan Wil­son, Ms. Bowser be­lied her cus­tom­ary cau­tion. The po­lit­i­cally safer choice would have been in­terim chan­cel­lor Amanda Alexan­der. Ms. Alexan­der has earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a smart and tena­cious ed­u­ca­tor over two decades with the city’s schools, and as act­ing head she has pro­vided steady lead­er­ship since Mr. Wil­son was ousted nine months ago.

Clearly, though, Ms. Bowser saw the need for bolder ac­tion and more ur­gency in school re­form and de­cided Mr. Fere­bee has the ex­pe­ri­ence and vi­sion to meet the chal­lenges still fac­ing the schools. The son of two ed­u­ca­tors, Mr. Fere­bee is a for­mer teacher, prin­ci­pal and ad­min­is­tra­tor with a his­tory of turn­ing around low-per­form­ing schools. He was, Chalk­beat re­ported, an un­con­ven­tional choice for In­di­anapo­lis schools, the state’s sec­ond-largest sys­tem strug­gling with the chal­lenges fac­ing ur­ban ed­u­ca­tion, when he was hired in 2013 from Durham, N.C.

But he soon made a name for him­self. Early in his ten­ure, he un­der­took his own re­view of the bud­get that un­cov­ered a prac­tice that re­ported the dis­trict as run­ning a deficit, lead­ing to pro­grams and staff be­ing cut, when in fact it was in the black. The dis­trict’s chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer was fired, and teach­ers re­ceived long-over­due raises. Ed­u­ca­tion Week pro­filed him in 2016 as a leader to learn from, high­light­ing his re­solve in forg­ing a part­ner­ship with char­ter schools. He also has re­ceived plau­dits for his work in re­design­ing high school ed­u­ca­tion and ca­reer and tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

Mr. Fere­bee has said that the strat­egy in Durham was not the strat­egy in In­di­anapo­lis, and just as he started his work in In­di­anapo­lis with a lis­ten­ing tour to un­der­stand the needs and strengths of the schools, so will he do in Wash­ing­ton. He is right to want to do his home­work. He is right also that there are no “sil­ver bul­lets” in im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion. But it is im­por­tant that the D.C. Coun­cil — which must con­firm his ap­point­ment — press him on his ideas and goals. “We’re ob­vi­ously not at a point where we are ready to run a vic­tory lap,” he said of the schools. That’s clear. But the city will want to hear more about gains he wants to pre­serve as well as new di­rec­tions he has in mind.

EVE­LYN HOCKSTEIN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Lewis D. Fere­bee in Wash­ing­ton on Dec. 2.

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