After months of community forums and private deliberation, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Our Schools Leadership Committee have chosen Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee as the next chancellor.
Some local education leaders welcomed the news, expressing a desire to hear directly from Ferebee and learn more about how he plans to address academic issues that have long plagued the school system.
“I hope that we have a public process that really gains feedback about Ferebee, his qualifications, and vision for the school system,” said Markus Batchelor, Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education as he weighed in on Monday’s announcement.
The decision followed the culmination of Chancellor Search Engagement Forums, public conversations between Bowser administration officials and D.C. residents about qualities sought in a chancellor.
On Saturday, the Our Schools Leadership Committee narrowed the search down to Ferebee and Amanda Alexander, a 20-year DCPS veteran who has been the interim chancellor since Antwan Wilson’s February resignation. Wilson left amid fallout from his circumvention of the school lottery system to enroll his daughter in a high-performing school.
Ferebee, a high-profile national education figure, counted among the finalists for the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District before turning down the opportunity. During his five-year stint as superintendent in Indianapolis, Ferebee replaced the neighborhood school system with pre-college and vocational academies. He also collaborated with charter schools to run low-performing elementary campuses in the financially struggling system of 32,000 students.
Ferebee recently told reporters that he has no plans of making bold changes during the first few months of his tenure; instead he’ll speak to parents, teachers and students.
“Hopefully Ferebee gets to have conversations with D.C. residents in the next few months and show a commitment to giving residents the surety that their time in office will be more transparent and honest about the problems we face and how we move the ball for all students,” Batchelor said.
The chancellor selection process hasn’t been without some conflict. In June, hours before Bowser announced the start of her search, Batchelor and others publicly demanded transparency in the final decision, criticizing the manner in which Bowser chose Wilson, formerly of the Oakland Unified School District, to replace Kaya Henderson.
In 2016, to the chagrin of education advocates, selection committee members received information about Wilson two hours before an emergency press conference at Eastern Senior High School in Southeast where Bowser announced that he would sit at the helm of DCPS. Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis, among others, decried the process as a violation of the public trust that wouldn’t start Wilson’s tenure off on good note.
Weeks later, at the prodding of D.C. parents who filed a lawsuit, the Bowser administration expanded participation on the Our School Leadership Committee to two more students and teachers, and another parent.
Residents, Educators Concerned
During a post-Election Day press conference following her re-election last month, Bowser predicted the coming of an announcement “very soon,” saying that the Our Schools Leadership Committee compiled qualities they sought in the next chancellor.
But some DCPS teachers said that they have been kept in the dark about a decision that will dictate their career trajectory.
For one native Washingtonian and instructor of nearly a decade, who requested anonymity out of contractual obligations, too much is on the line to choose someone who doesn’t understand the effects of poverty on student performance and teacher success.
“Whoever becomes chancellor will become responsible for contract negotiations with teachers, so they should have a good understanding of the District,” the instructor said. “There has been a lot of emphasis on standardized tests. It’s hard to be a good teacher when you have to worry about test scores and people evaluating you based on a 30-minute ‘snapshot’ of your observation. A large percentage of students in the D.C. school system come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Test scores aren’t indicative of how well someone teaches in a socioeconomically deprived setting.”
Despite steady enrollment gains, DCPS student academic achievement remains a point of contention.
Earlier this year, some people questioned Bowser’s assertion of overall gains on the PARCC exam for the third consecutive year. In September, the D.C. Council Committee on Education recommended passage of legislation that would establish an advisory board and collaborative, independent of the Executive Office of the Mayor, to measure long-term student progress and audit data collection.
Former DCPS teacher Robert Blandford said he wants to see a similar enthusiasm for the truth from the next DCPS chancellor, but that might not be likely.
“The folks involved in the process just decided the priorities — they didn’t come from the community. Otherwise, [DCPS] would’ve come up with a different strategic plan,” said Blandford, 71, a lifelong D.C. resident who lives in Southeast, as he reflected on his participation in a Chancellor Search Engagement Forum at Savoy Elementary School in Southeast in September.
“They don’t have knowledge of the historical nature of the problem,” Blandford said. “I sat in that meeting and there wasn’t much leeway. No one was going to change anything. The new chancellor will have their marching orders, so I don’t think they’ll buck the system.”