MR. JONATHAN WILSON
So now we'll turn from square footage to square roots and the story of one D.C. public school, Shaw Middle School at Garnett-Patterson, located at 10th and V Streets, NW. DCPS created this school in 2008 by merging two struggling middle school programs. They hired a man named Brian Betts to become the school's new principal. Under him, Shaw Middle became a symbol of the promise of education reform, a place that challenged conventional wisdom about urban schools, and inspired teachers and students alike to succeed. But Betts was murdered in 2010, and critics say the school's unraveling in subsequent years says a lot about the larger problems within DCPS. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza brings us the story.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
Alice Speck used to push her baby's stroller past Shaw Middle School at Garnett-Patterson in Northwest D.C.
MS. ALICE SPECK
I met this man standing outside the school, greeting students, and shaking hands with community members, and it was Principal Brian Betts.
That sound of Betts in a WAMU story from a few years ago, a Starbucks coffee cup in one hand, offering up hugs.
MR. BRIAN BETTS
You know, I know them all by name. I want to start my day by talking to them. I want them to start their day by talking to me.
Speck was intrigued. Her son wasn't even crawling yet, but Betts invited her and other parents to talk about the school.
We would have had no doubts of sending our children here.
Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee recruited Brian Betts from Montgomery County in 2008. Under him, Shaw Middle School became the face of the urban education reform movement, what was possible when smart, motivated adults did the right thing by poor, disenfranchised children. U.S. senators toured the halls, a Harvard professor conducted a national study there, and for journalists, it was a regular pit stop.
MS. KIMBERLY FIELDS
He just made us all motivated, and want to go to school. You really wanted to go.
That's Kimberly Fields. She was one of a group of students who persuaded school's Chancellor Rhee to add a 9th grade so they could stay at their middle school. The next year Rhee granted them a 10th grade extension. Even though Shaw's test scores dropped under Betts, with just about 30 percent of children able to read and do math on grade level, he permeated the building with a tremendous sense of purpose. So when Fields heard Betts had been shot dead in his home, it was devastating.
I started crying, and I couldn't believe that I would cry. Like, he's just my principal, it's not like he's in the family. But I was really emotional, really sad about it.
Betts had met at least one of his attackers on a sex chat line. But for the students and teachers who knew him, the manner in which he died in April 2010 was less significant than the sudden loss of their principal. So is this just a story of a star principal carrying a school? Or could DCPS have sustained Betts' vision for Shaw Middle School? Staff who worked there describe a series of missteps they say caused the school to fail. After Betts died, the assistant principal was promoted to principal, and David DeMatthews, who previously worked at DCPS Central Office, became the new assistant principal at Shaw.
MR. DAVID DEMATTHEWS
A strength of Mr. Betts was his charisma, and the way he built relationships, but the school wasn't very structured.
DeMatthews says part of the problem was that teachers were inexperienced. The vast majority had fewer than five years in the classroom. He says the new administrative team that came in after Betts' death focused on supports for students, both socially and academically.
We had an extra social worker, a mental health clinician. And then also we did some things in terms of making sure our curriculum was aligned better, making sure our teachers were co-planning together, analyzing data.
Fani Bettmann was a teacher at Shaw when Brian Betts was principal. She remembers those years differently.
MS. FANI BETTMANN
Brian was a force of nature. It was invigorating to teach under Brian's leadership.
She says Brian Betts gave teachers a lot of freedom, flexibility and a sense they were changing the world for their students. She says after he died, that spirit was crushed.
The environment that year was extremely challenging, bordering on toxic. Extremely successful, committed teachers were micro managed and disciplined.
Her colleague Nick Curwen says Betts was a mentor and after Betts' death, many teachers felt abandoned by DCPS Central Office.
MR. NICK CURWEN
No one came in to help us. How are we supposed to grieve when we're kind of shepherding and in charge of 200 and some odd students who are also grieving?
He says students began to act out.
I remember breaking up like knockdown fights in people's classrooms, actually breaking my hand in the process.
Eventually Curwen left DCPS. But he thinks DCPS should have done more for students there.
They deserved better. You know, if Shaw was supposed to be this pinnacle of what education should look like in D.C., just because Brian died, doesn't mean that everyone should have walked away from it. But I would just like to see kind of more consistency, not let's change every year when we're not seeing what we want to see.
David DeMatthews, the assistant principal the year after Brian Betts died, says for the first time the school saw a small growth in test scores. But during the 2011 school year, the second after Betts' death, the school's budget was adjusted to reflect the decision to do away with the 9th and 10th grades it had added a few years earlier. Enrollment plummeted by approximately 50 percent. And since funding is based on the number of students in a school, the budget was slashed by $2 million dollars.
We had two other assistant principals, they were cut, a special education coordinator was cut, multiple teachers, a number of people we had to let go of.
Then at the end of the 2012 school year, Betts' successor was fired. DeMatthews decided to leave.
We weren't resourced appropriately to handle the students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
For a school to function well, students and teachers need stability, consistency and clear expectations. And with a revolving door of adults, Shaw was crumbling from within. DeMatthews says education reform shouldn't just be about holding teachers and principals accountable.
So I would want to know who in the school district is, likewise, accountable for selecting people who are not capable of running a school in an effective manner. DCPS is excellent at branding things, all this hoopla, but the Shaw story tells a story maybe of how maybe they haven't changed as much as people said they did or would.
During the 2012 school year, under a new principal, things became worse with at Shaw Middle School, with lower enrollment and increasing reports of violence. Finally, at the beginning of this year, the current DCPS chancellor, Kaya Henderson, decided to close the school. WAMU made repeated requests to speak with Henderson for this story over a period of two months, but she was not available, nor did she make any members of her staff available.
Alice Speck, the neighborhood parent who first met Brian Betts on her morning strolls, blames the lack of community outreach and constant principal turnover for the school's failure. She reads from a plaque close to where Principal Betts used to stand every morning.
It says, "In Loving Memory of Principal Brian Keith Betts." And this is a famous quote at the bottom that Brian said, "There are two types of students, students who go to Shaw and students who wish they went to Shaw."
Now, five years after Betts started at Shaw, there are neither. The school, which was a symbol of the promise of education, is shuttered. I'm Kavitha Cardoza.
These reports are part of "American Graduate, Let's Make It Happen," a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
It's now time for a break, but when we get back, words of wisdom from one of our nation's most famous presidents.
MS. MICHELLE KROWL
Today at his speech everyone would have their cellphone cameras out, but in Lincoln's day we don't have a photograph of him actually giving the address. There's still so many mysteries about it.
That and more just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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