A new book on Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater by journalist Richard Whitmire, reports an eyebrow-raising claim: That former Hardy Middle School principal Patrick Pope manipulated the admissions process to reduce the numbers of poor students gaining admission to the school.
Could this be true?
A high-level education administrator who served in the Fenty administration confirmed to Greater Greater Washington that this was a real concern of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her deputies.
Rhee and her team discovered that Hardy, whose students are 75% black, had a far lower percentage of poor students than other schools with a similar racial makeup, despite students being selected by a lottery.
Officials worried that Pope was making Hardy into a haven for out-of-boundary, well-off African-American students, disadvantaging others from poorer backgrounds. On the other hand, the breakdown is similar to that of magnet schools, suggesting the disparity could also simply have resulted from Hardy changing from a typical neighborhood school into a de facto magnet school.
Rhee reassigned Pope away from his position as principal of the successful Hardy Middle School in May 2010 over the objections of many parents, teachers and students. We now know that this issue was in her mind when she made that decision.
Instead, Rhee tasked Pope with designing and eventually leading a new arts-focused magnet middle school that was to open in Fall 2011. Design and funding concerns have delayed the new school’s implementation for a year.
Hardy Middle School, located at the northern edge of Georgetown, draws 85% of its students from the out-of-boundary lottery. Only 15% of its students come from within its boundary of Georgetown, Burleith, Glover Park and Palisades. 75% of its students are black, while the surrounding neighborhoods are much more white.
The debate over reassigning Pope
Pope’s supporters have mounted a vocal campaign to return Pope to Hardy that continues to this day. While some of Pope’s support has come from in-boundary parents, the vast majority of those testifying at hearings and leading the campaign for Pope’s reinstatement are out-of-boundary parents.
These parents have claimed that Rhee’s removal of Pope as principal was an attempt to “whitewash” the mostly black school by replacing him with a principal who will reach out to in-boundary families. As evidence, they point to a meeting Rhee held with parents of students attending Key Elementary, in the Palisades, which feeds into Hardy. The subject of the meeting, held at a private home in the Palisades, was the dissatisfaction of Key parents with Hardy.
Rhee and her staff never publicly explained what, if anything, Rhee wished that Pope had done differently at Hardy. This silence left a void that has been filled with the claims of Pope’s supporters that Rhee removed Pope because he wouldn’t reach out to in-boundary, usually white, parents of elementary school children to recruit them to attend Hardy.
It now appears that, while Rhee and her deputies viewed Hardy Middle School as unwelcoming to in-boundary white students, they viewed it as far more unwelcoming to poor students. Rhee and her staff were convinced that Pope was filtering out poor students when selecting out-of-boundary applicants.
The lottery and a principal’s discretion
Children enrolled in DCPS get automatic admission to the school whose boundary includes their home. If a school has more spaces than the principal’s projection of in-boundary student enrollment, it conducts a lottery for students from elsewhere in the District to make up the difference.
DCPS conducts the lottery, whose process doesn’t consider a student’s race, income level, or academic ability. However, there is also a waitlist for students who don’t get admitted through the standard lottery, and principals have much more leeway there.
Furthermore, it’s up to the principal how many out-of-boundary spaces to make available through the lottery. The fewer lottery spaces, the more students will need to be pulled from the waitlist. It’s this waitlist process which education officials believed Pope used to admit students from more well-off families.
While Hardy had been a typical neighborhood school when Pope became principal, Pope added an arts focus to Hardy and instituted a special application process that included a site visit by applicants.
Most principals select out-of-boundary students off of their waiting list in the order in which they entered the waitlist, that is, blind. Parents have often wondered if Pope selected out-of-boundary students blind as well, or if he used information from the application process to cherry-pick certain students off the out-of-boundary waitlist.
Education officials, Whitmire says, became convinced that Pope was doing just that:
To Rhee and her staff, it looked as if Pope’s student selection process at Hardy weeded out lower-income black children who might not fit in (read: be disruptive) and possibly even special education students.
Whitmire spoke with Pope, and writes that “Pope takes strong exception to the suggestion that his application process discriminated against any students.”
However, the conclusion of Rhee’s staff was that “a selection process that separates out the ‘wrong’ sort of black families, as Rhee and her staff concluded Pope was doing, was just wrong.”
Why prefer out-of-boundary, well-off students?
Why would a principal try to increase admissions of out-of-boundary students, particularly out-of-boundary students that are economically advantaged?
According to the former DCPS official, a common problem in big city school systems is principals who try to fill up their buildings with out-of-boundary students in order to reduce complaints from parents.
In-boundary parents often feel more entitled to complain about teachers, curricula, and other school conditions. Out-of-boundary students and their parents, on the other hand, tend to be more appreciative of the opportunity to attend the school.
Why would a principal go even further and filter low-income students out of the out-of-boundary waitlist? Low income students do have a greater likelihood of creating disciplinary problems. Reducing their numbers would help a principal to improve discipline at the school. That would also build even more support from the other parents.
The concern of many DCPS officials, in other words, was this. By transforming Hardy Middle School into a haven for economically-advantaged African-American students, Pope was able to deliver discipline and academic results that pleased previous superintendents while making entitled in-boundary parents, and poor students, problems for other principals to deal with.
It’s unclear if Pope received permission from DCPS to base his out-of-boundary waitlist selections solely on information from his admissions process, or whether the process was intended by DCPS merely to set expectations of out-of-boundary students.
The former DCPS official suspects that former superintendents didn’t ask many questions about the admissions process because Pope was known as a principal who was in control of his building. Rhee and her staff, however, saw the demographic data, according to Whitmire, and started asking questions.
A look at the data
A look at demographic data for DC schools lends support to this claim, while it also raises questions about whether weeding out poor students was Pope’s intent or simply the effect of running a de facto magnet school.
No middle school in DC has as large a gap between the percentage of African-American students and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students as Hardy Middle School. Students are typically classified as economically disadvantaged if they qualify for free or reduced price lunches.
The percentage of low-income students is generally closely correlated with the percentage of African-American students at DC schools. The other 9 Grade 6-8 schools admit on average 87% as many low-income students as black students.
Hardy, on the other hand, had 420 students in the 2009-2010 school year, 312 (75%) of whom were African-American and 170 (41%) of whom were low-income. Hardy thus admits only 54% as many low-income students as black students.
If Hardy admissions looked like the other 9 schools, low-income students would make up 272 students, or 65% of the student body. This is a far higher increase of students (102 students, or 24%) than any expect to see from in-boundary students in the near future, and one that would mostly result from only 3 years of blind admissions.
Is there a reasonable explanation for this unique disparity at Hardy Middle School? One possible explanation is that any school with an admissions process is going to weed out poor students.
In fact, a look at Washington’s magnet high schools shows demographics similar to that of Hardy Middle School.
Perhaps the unique demographics of Hardy were not the result of any specific intent to make poor students another principal’s problem. Perhaps they were the unintended effect of using an application process to select students off of the Hardy waitlist with the best essays and in-person interviews.
The future of Hardy and Pope
Leaders of the campaign to reinstate Pope at Hardy complain about a rise in disruptive behavior and a drop in commitment to the arts program in the current school year.
It’s revealing to note, however, that the current year’s admissions waitlist was managed last summer not by Pope, who had been reassigned by then, but by his successor. Is this change simply a result of Hardy becoming more welcoming to economically disadvantaged students?
Leaders of the campaign to reinstate Pope also argue, as noted above, that the removal of Pope as principal of Hardy was an attempt to make Hardy more acceptable to in-boundary white families. Ironically, however, the change to a blind admissions process will make that more difficult.
Admitting students more randomly will likely increase the number of poor students at Hardy by up to 100 students in only 3 years. Sadly, that would statistically also increase the number of disciplinary problems, likely making Hardy less appealing for parents choosing between Hardy and private schools.
Is this right or wrong?
Should a middle school that had been open to out-of-boundary students regardless of economic status have been transformed into one disproportionately closed to poor students?
Should the plea of Pope’s supporters to maintain this system be denied for reasons of economic equity?
The big difference between the magnet high schools mentioned above and Hardy is that the magnet schools were created as magnet schools, whereas Patrick Pope transformed Hardy, with some degree of DCPS approval, into a de facto magnet school.
Given the dire state of child poverty, which is a moral stain on our city, this seems like a bad idea. A better idea would be to create a new middle school that is explicitly a magnet school, thus increasing educational options for all students. This is, in fact, exactly what Chancellor Henderson says she is doing.
The new magnet middle school will be the first in the DC school system. Placing Pope at the helm of the new school would leverage his real strengths in building magnet schools versus running a standard neighborhood school. Chancellor Henderson’s plan with regard to Hardy and a new magnet middle school thus enables us to focus on increasing educational options for all children regardless of race or economic status.