Within a matter of weeks, Melissa Kim, a polarizing figure in District public education, will step down from her role as deputy chancellor of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS).    

Staff members and administrators received an email on September 16 in the middle of what’s been described as an ongoing investigation into allegations of Kim’s verbal abuse of others and her creation of a turbulent work environment. 

DCPS Deputy Chancellor Melissa Kim (Courtesy photo)

In the aftermath of Kim’s announcement, some DCPS employees, including one who requested anonymity, continue to question why it took DCPS years to investigate Kim. They also bemoaned DCPS’ decision not to terminate her. 

“No one wanted to talk about it [but] we shouldn’t be spoken to like this,” the school-based employee of more than a decade said as they recounted instances when Kim overtly questioned their competence and pitted them against their supervisor. 

“If I spoke to my team the way that Melissa Kim spoke to me, I’d probably be fired,” the staff member continued. 

“I cannot talk like that or I’d be labeled as aggressive and a problem. In our eyes, you can’t speak out about this, or it will come back to you. You’ll be punished and penalized.” 

Exploring Kim’s Record of Service

For nearly five years as DCPS’ deputy chancellor, Kim has had purview over 116 public schools, along with academic programming, interventions, equity initiatives and family engagement. 

In her role, she guided the Anacostia and Ballou redesign, created a turnaround strategy for low-performing schools, ushered in a “science of reading” curriculum, and launched a pandemic-era data-tracking system intended to connect students with interventions. 

Supporters say Kim clocked upward toward 100 hours per week since the start of the pandemic, often sacrificing time with her young children. 

Kim’s two decades in education include a stint at KIPP as chief academic officer as well as a partner role at New Schools Venture Fund, a national education-based philanthropic organization. She also spent nearly a decade as principal at Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest. 

Jacquelyn Davis, Kim’s colleague of more than 20 years, decried the allegations against Kim as ridiculous and untruthful. She went on to tout what she described as Kim’s pursuit of academic excellence and dedication to students.   

“At the beginning of her tenure [as principal at Deal Middle School], there were some complaints from parents that she yelled too loudly in the halls and some teachers who said her expectations were too high,” said Davis, a nationally recognized social entrepreneur and education advisor. 

In the early 2000s, Davis, then founding director of the New Leaders for New Schools, personally selected Kim from a candidate pool of hundreds to become part of the first cohort of aspiring principals.  

“As a tiny woman, barely able to see over the middle school students, Melissa Kim had to yell to be heard in crowded hallways,” Davis said. “She worked tirelessly to turn the school around and bring it to a standard of national excellence. Families went on to love and adore her.”

An Employee Points to the Bigger Picture

Kim’s departure, scheduled for October 7, comes more than a year after DCPS transferred Dwan Jordon, her former KIPP DC colleague, from his position as principal of John Hayden Johnson Middle School in Southeast to a similar role at the school system’s virtual program. 

Teachers and staff members who organized around Jordon’s removal during the pandemic said Jordon’s proximity to Kim often compelled him to berate teachers without consequence.  

Kim, in her second go-around in the public school system, similarly garnered a reputation as someone who didn’t take well to criticism. 

As one former DCPS employee said, administrators knew that, despite her designation as deputy chancellor, Kim wielded significantly more power and influence in the central office than DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee. 

The former employee, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said it got to the point where, instead of speaking out against Kim’s behavior, central office veterans often advised leaders rising through the ranks to avoid Kim’s wrath. 

“One of the mechanisms of control was that when you provided some feedback counter to the mayor, there would be backlash,” the former employee said. 

“A number of folks said our budgets would get slashed when we advocated for anything. Melissa Kim was a headline-driven leader. We were told to be flashy in our work. Hands down, that was the conversation.” 

Neither D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office nor Kim returned The Informer’s inquiry about the circumstances of Kim’s resignation. DCPS also declined to comment on the personnel matter but noted that its central office provides various means for teachers, staff and others to file grievances. Sources familiar with the investigation said a complaint by a white male colleague triggered the investigation into Kim’s conduct.   

Kim’s announcement comes days after Bowser finalized a union contract with public school principals. Weeks earlier, DCPS and charter school officials revealed efforts to boost students’ post-pandemic academic standing. 

Another unique aspect of the school year involves nearly 70 migrant children who arrived in the District by bus this summer and have been enrolled in public schools. 

With so much happening this fall, some people, like a former DCPS employee who also requested anonymity, said the central office must raise administrator and staff member morale by quickly responding to complaints about Kim and others who speak out of turn to subordinates.  

“This is so widespread and for senior leadership to know it’s happening, from either something being said to them directly or being copied in emails, is the sad part,” the former employee said. 

“I hope they come clean about what’s happening and apologize to the people who suffered under not just Melissa Kim, but other people as well,” they added. 

“I don’t know if they will. They don’t like to admit there’s anything wrong.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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