After weeks of public appearances and meetings with students, parents, teachers, education leaders, and elected officials, acting Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, the man D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) handpicked to run DC Public Schools, belabored his commitment to educational equity during several rounds of questions from members of the D.C. Council Committee on Education.
At one point, in response to a request that he specify his vision for closing the opportunity gap, Ferebee referenced a toddler named Cameron who he watched quietly frolic in a corner of the fourth-floor council chamber as his mother and others provided public testimony in the early part of the nearly nine-hour hearing.
“The vision is to make sure Cameron ready for kindergarten, going from learning to read to reading to learn,” Ferebee said on Tuesday night, during the second of five rounds of questions, in response to Ward 8 D.C. Council member Trayon White’s inquiry.
“He has experiences in middle school where he has access to college and career planning,” Ferebee continued. “He has a relationship with adults who know his name and aspirations. He has adults to help him when he enters high school and knows what he needs to do to make it to the next level. That’s my vision for him; that’s my vision for my son.”
Ferebee’s interview with the Committee on Education followed hours of public testimony from a bevy of figures in local education space, including State Board of Education Representatives Frazier O’Leary (Ward 4) and Markus Batchelor (Ward 8), Ronald Mason, Jr., president of the University of the District of Columbia and Allyson Criner Brown of Teaching for Change. Many expressed concerns about school closures and consolidation, high teacher turnover and the lack of viable middle school options.
Tuesday’s public hearing counted as part of a labyrinthic chancellor-confirmation process that allowed D.C. council members and members of the community to thoroughly vet Ferebee who, along with one-time Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander, counted among the finalists in the Our Schools Leadership Committee’s search last year.
The final council vote on this matter, which has yet to be scheduled, will determine whether Ferebee becomes a permanent fixture.
Weeks after Bowser announced that she’d tapped Ferebee to sit at the helm of DC Public Schools, Council member David Grosso (I-At large), chair of the council’s Committee on Education, hosted roundtables at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Northeast and Cardozo Education Campus in Northwest.
These public events rose out of a concern that Bowser chose Ferebee, formerly of Indianapolis Public Schools [IPS], over Alexander, despite the latter’s intimate knowledge of DC Public Schools in the aftermath of Antwan Wilson’s resignation and without the level of transparency desired by DC Public School teachers.
For some community members, an Achilles’ heel for Ferebee involved allegations that he overlooked a sexual relationship between an IPS counselor and two students while superintendent.
While he didn’t reveal the details of his response to the controversy during Tuesday’s hearing, out of respect to still ongoing litigation on the matter, Ferebee vehemently denied stalling the release of information about the complaint.
He later said the situation taught him to prioritize transparency and be clear in his communication to the school community.
Weeks earlier, during the Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 roundtables, some teachers lamented what they described as conditions reminiscent of Wilson’s installment. On many occasions, as Ferebee sat in the audience, council members inquired about Ferebee’s plans for DC Public Schools and scrutinized his call for charter schools taking over low-performing elementary schools in Indianapolis.
During the latter part of Tuesday night’s hearing, he clarified his views on the Innovation Schools model – one under which IPS institutions and charter schools coexisted.
He went on iterate that school closure and privatization, as described by At-large D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I), wouldn’t be an option.
“I don’t draw a connection between the Innovation Schools model and DCPS,” Ferebee said. “Part of the challenge in Indianapolis was limited communication between charter and public schools. We had an oversaturation in some schools and others lacking students. Part of the challenge was not establishing schools right next to each other if they didn’t have the population to support it.”
Ferebee Takes His Message to the Streets
Since becoming acting chancellor, Ferebee has worked nonstop to familiarize himself with DC Public Schools students, teachers, personnel and parents, volunteering at Ron Brown College Preparatory in Northeast, Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast and joining Bowser in celebrating the opening of Ketcham Elementary School’s child development center in Southeast. He also engaged community members at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest about the Every Student Succeeds Act, touted as a viable, more parent-centered alternative to No Child Left Behind.
For two consecutive Fridays, Ferebee hosted “Ferebee Friday” gatherings in Wards 5 and 8, respectively. The most recent Ferebee Friday took place at Cheers at the Big Chair on Martin Luther King Ave in Anacostia.
Hours before attending the February 8 event, Ferebee toured Ballou Senior High School, at times entering classrooms, watching students work on media projects and speaking with them about school attendance, school equity and the stigma of attending a school they said has been severely mischaracterized.
As a show of solidarity with D.C. youth, Ferebee followed a group of students, Ballou Principal Willie Jackson and others along Fourth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Congress Heights shortly after the bell rang at the end of the school day. While along the avenue, Ferebee greeted residents and briefly conferred with Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes.
For Ferebee, hearing impassioned pleas from student leaders that their chancellor develops a genuine relationship with all students, regardless of academic standing or reputation, resonated with him, so much so that that he reflected on how best to consider external factors that impede students’ ability to consistently attend school on time, let alone succeed in the classroom, when writing policy.
“There has to be a way to strike a balance when policy and procedures are written,” he said. “I will talk to our team about it and see how policy disincentivizes student attendance. I will look into tapping into agencies [for their help]. There’s still a student responsibility but balancing that with what I heard from a young man about being a primary caregiver, we have to be mindful of special situations where younger people have to do what they have to do for their families.”
A Track Record of School Leadership
As head of IPS, Ferebee oversaw a graduation rate increase of 15 percent, with Black and Latino student high school completion reaching levels surpassing the state average. He also implemented a student-based budgeting process as part of an effort to increase equity and transparency around spending.
Prior to his five-year stint at IPS, Ferebee served as chief of staff for Durham Public Schools where he reduced the number of educational institutions designated as “turnaround schools” to zero.
In North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools, Ferebee, an alumnus of North Carolina Central University, The George Washington University in Northwest and East Carolina University, served as an instructional improvement officer, regional supervisor and later principal.
What some critics described as a dearth of on-the-field teaching experience didn’t deter offers from Bowser and the Los Angeles Unified School District, which Ferebee turned down.
Upon accepting his nomination for chancellor, Ferebee reportedly said he had no immediate plans to make radical changes. More than a month later, especially after touring Ballou and Eastern senior high schools, both of which are located in Southeast, Ferebee hinted at plans to bridge the gap between students, their school buildings and the greater D.C. community.
“When I saw the indoor track, I saw communities where the elderly can walk after school hours,” Ferebee said.
“I wonder if we can open it up so that it becomes a hub for extracurricular activity and summer programs,” he continued. “From a public-private perspective, there’s an outcry for internships and apprenticeships and we have to do a better job of making those connections. The business community has to show possible career routes and how students can enter them.”
As chancellor, Ferebee would report directly to Bowser and maintain control of a school system dealing with questions about the efficacy of student performance data, transparency in spending and equity in resources for students living in the eastern part of the city, among a bevy of other issues.
Last year, opponents questioned Bowser’s assertion that PARCC scores incrementally increased for the third consecutive year. The D.C. Council later passed legislation establishing an advisory board and collaborative, independent of the Executive Office of the Mayor, that would measure long-term student progress and audit performance data.
On Friday afternoon, a group of Ballou students, many of whom continue to be impacted by a scandal during the 2018-2019 academic year that placed their school in the national spotlight, implored a revamping of DC Public School’s attendance policy. Students told Ferebee during a panel discussion that they wanted more of their city leaders to be genuine in their approach to students.
The group, comprised of nearly 10 Ballou student leaders, invited Ferebee back to their school, advising him to trade his dress clothes for more comfortable attire and spark conversation with their peers in the cafeteria.
Principal Jackson, in his first full year as principal at Ballou, said his students demonstrated the ability to advocate for themselves and their peers – those who attend Ballou or other D.C. schools – during their meeting.
“It’s a positive relationship and a good start for [Ferebee] making more visits and being in tune with what students are saying,” Jackson said. “The children want to see their chancellor more.”