Lewis D. Fere­bee is set to ap­pear be­fore the D.C. Coun­cil, which will re­view his nom­i­na­tion as chan­cel­lor.

Act­ing D.C. schools chan­cel­lor seeks to win trust ahead of nom­i­na­tion hear­ing

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PERRY STEIN

Lewis D. Fere­bee has ques­tions. What method are you us­ing to solve those al­ge­bra prob­lems? Is this neigh­bor­hood still con­sid­ered Capi­tol Hill? What im­prove­ments do you want to see in your school?

The mayor’s nom­i­nee to lead D.C. Pub­lic Schools — who has been serv­ing as act­ing chan­cel­lor for nearly a month — is try­ing to deftly nav­i­gate the city’s bumpy ed­u­ca­tion ter­rain as he pre­pares for the D.C. Coun­cil to de­cide his fate. A piv­otal mo­ment ar­rives Tues­day, when Fere­bee is ex­pected to be ques­tioned by the coun­cil dur­ing the third and fi­nal pub­lic hear­ing on his nom­i­na­tion.

Since Jan­uary, he has led a school sys­tem of about 49,000 stu­dents while try­ing to gain pub­lic sup­port for his nom­i­na­tion, striv­ing to show res­i­dents he is the right ed­u­ca­tor for the job.

For Fere­bee, who never worked for the D.C. school sys­tem be­fore be­com­ing the most pow­er­ful man in it, that means guard­ing any agenda he may — or may not — have.

So he’s pos­ing ques­tions to teach­ers and stu­dents on school vis­its. To ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers and ac­tivists at evening com­mu­nity meet­ings. To fam­i­lies at neigh­bor­hood meet-and-greets. And then, he says, he’s lis­ten­ing. “It would be a mis­step to talk a lot about Lewis’s strat­egy — what I be­lieve we should do in a way where it s ounds con­crete and fi­nal with­out el­e­vat­ing voices from fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties,” he

said in an in­ter­view at D.C. school head­quar­ters, wear­ing his trade­mark fitted suit and dark, over­sized tor­toise­shell eye­glasses.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) an­nounced Dec. 3 that Fere­bee, then su­per­in­ten­dent of In­di­anapo­lis Pub­lic Schools, was her pick to lead the D.C. school sys­tem. The 44-year-old ed­u­ca­tion leader cul­ti­vated a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for work­ing with char­ter schools and dis­rupt­ing the sta­tus quo as he tried to boost the strug­gling, cash-strapped school sys­tem.

But some D.C. res­i­dents have raised con­cerns about Fere­bee’s work in the Mid­west, ques­tion­ing whether he is the best per­son to bol­ster the District’s tra­di­tional school sys­tem, which faces com­pe­ti­tion from a char­ter sec­tor that ed­u­cates nearly half of the city’s chil­dren.

In In­di­anapo­lis, Fere­bee dis­man­tled neigh­bor­hood high schools and turned over many of the city’s low­est-per­form­ing ele­men­tary schools to char­ter op­er­a­tors even as those schools re­mained part of the tra­di­tional sys­tem — a move that weak­ened the teach­ers union. He con­tin­ues to en­counter back­lash for his han­dling of a 2016 sex­ual abuse case in­volv­ing a teacher and a stu­dent and is the de­fen­dant in three civil suits stem­ming from that episode.

“Are we to be­lieve that there was ab­so­lutely no one else who could pos­si­bly be a bet­ter fit for this job?” Chan­tal Fuller, a teacher in the D.C. school sys­tem, said at a re­cent hear­ing about Fere­bee’s nom­i­na­tion.

Fere­bee, who is slated to earn $280,000 a year, in­sists he would be a cham­pion for neigh­bor­hood schools in the city and that he has no in­ten­tion of repli­cat­ing in the District what he did in In­di­anapo­lis.

Sure, he said, he has thoughts and ob­ser­va­tions about the District. It’s just that he’s not ready to say how they will trans­late into con­crete ideas.

He no­ticed that some schools have sig­nif­i­cant en­roll­ment of spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents, while oth­ers have few. He thinks there could be a pol­icy so­lu­tion to rem­edy in­equities this may cause.

He knows he needs to ad­dress ag­ing tech­nol­ogy in schools and wants to think about ef­fec­tively in­te­grat­ing it into class­rooms.

He has sensed from teach­ers and prin­ci­pals that a cul­ture of fear ex­ists — fear that with one mis­step, they could lose their jobs.

So he wants to reeval­u­ate the prac­tice of award­ing prin­ci­pals one-year con­tracts, and he plans to ex­am­ine the city’s IM­PACT eval­u­a­tion sys­tem for ed­u­ca­tors — one of the first in the coun­try to tie teacher bonuses and job se­cu­rity to an­nual eval­u­a­tion scores.

But Fere­bee is cau­tious to stop short of say­ing ex­actly what he thinks about IM­PACT. When pressed by a teacher at a re­cent com­mu­nity meet­ing, he said he is “com­mit­ted to an eval­u­a­tion process that is fair.”

“It could be a sce­nario where IM­PACT is not bro­ken, it’s just how it’s be­ing im­ple­mented,” he later said in an in­ter­view. “And I think that is still to be de­ter­mined.”

So in­stead of of­fer­ing con­crete pol­icy ideas, Fere­bee said he is first try­ing to build trust in a school sys­tem that’s lack­ing in it.

“You can only move at the rate of trust,” he said.

Re­pair­ing trust, though, may be a lofty goal for some­one who just showed up, en­ter­ing a school sys­tem bat­tered by a year of scan­dals and lead­er­ship in­sta­bil­ity.

“I’m not say­ing that Fere­bee will not be ac­cepted, but it will be a whole lot eas­ier if he were from here,” D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Vin­cent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said at a pub­lic hear­ing at which res­i­dents of­fered the coun­cil feed­back on Fere­bee ahead of its vote on his nom­i­na­tion.

So Fere­bee is show­ing up, talk­ing with peo­ple who line up to tell him about their schools, post­ing cheery mes­sages on Twit­ter, snap­ping pho­tos with who­ever wants them — try­ing to win over D.C. res­i­dents and em­ploy­ees one by one.

That means tak­ing tours of schools in blus­tery weather, shak­ing hands with teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors. Cheer­ing on and lis­ten­ing to im­promptu per­for­mances from East­ern High’s march­ing band. And ask­ing ques­tions of each teacher, par­ent and stu­dent he meets.

Dur­ing a sev­enth-grade Engspe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion lish class at John­son Mid­dle School, Fere­bee squished his tall frame into a mid­dle-school-size desk and joined the stu­dents in a dis­cus­sion of the novel “The Rock and the River.”

At one point, he played teacher for a few min­utes, stand­ing up and lead­ing the class in a dis­cus­sion about his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, which tran­si­tioned into a dis­cus­sion about the civil rights move­ment.

As Fere­bee was leav­ing the class­room, 12-year-old Tai­vian Scott qui­etly asked the ed­u­ca­tor, who is dis­tinctly tall, if he played basketball. No, Fere­bee replied, he’s a for­mer foot­ball player.

The boy then earnestly won­dered how the act­ing chan­cel­lor could be so tall. Veg­eta­bles, Fere­bee quipped. He later sat down with high school stu­dents and told them that he wanted them to be con­nected to ca­reers in high school and to have ac­cess to jobs. He ref­er­ences his high-school-age son when he can, try­ing to show the stu­dents he’s more than just a chan­cel­lor. Teenagers at East­ern and Bal­lou high schools took him on tours of their neigh­bor­hoods, where Fere­bee learned about the cor­ner take­out joints.

“Where do you get your hair cut?” he asked Chris­tian John­son, a sopho­more at East­ern, af­ter they passed a shut­tered bar­ber­shop in the neigh­bor­hood.

The D.C. Coun­cil has vowed to con­duct a rig­or­ous con­fir­ma­tion process ahead of its vote, which has not been sched­uled. If the coun­cil does not vote by April 9, Fere­bee will au­to­mat­i­cally be con­firmed.

Un­til then, Fere­bee will be at schools and cof­fee shops, meet­ing res­i­dents, try­ing to prove he is not just an out­sider at­tempt­ing to make big changes in a city he does not know.

“If we’re go­ing to truly im­prove out­comes in the District of Columbia,” Fere­bee said, “I can tell you that, one, it’s go­ing to be hard; and, two, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen un­less we do it to­gether.”

“I’m not say­ing that Fere­bee will not be ac­cepted, but it will be a whole lot eas­ier if he were from here.”

Vin­cent C. Gray, D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Lewis D. Fere­bee, the act­ing D.C. schools chan­cel­lor, leads a class dis­cus­sion with stu­dents on a visit last month to East­ern High School in North­east Wash­ing­ton.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

East­ern High School stu­dents Joseph Soltani, cen­ter, and Ja­dyn Turner take part in a dis­cus­sion with act­ing D.C. schools chan­cel­lor Lewis D. Fere­bee last month.

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