Rhee Recap

Some gay leaders assess departing DCPS chancellor's tenure

Michelle Rhee has been a controversial figure in D.C. politics since her appointment as D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) chancellor by Mayor Adrian Fenty in June of 2007. Accordingly, her recent resignation as D.C. Public Schools chancellor is good news to some and bad news to others.

Within the local LGBT community, Adam Tenner, who as executive director of Metro TeenAIDS works daily with D.C. youth, has been one of Rhee’s supporters.

”Not everybody liked her style,” he says, while adding that while some may have seen her as authoritarian, she was a strong advocate for youth.

”Her weaknesses were also her strengthens,” says Tenner. ”She is a direct communicator and she had a vision for where DCPS is going. … Michelle Rhee really was the first real leader in D.C. Public Schools. She has never shied away from the fact that there are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender youth in our schools.”

David Mariner takes a different view.

”She has reduced the conversation about the well-being of students to test scores,” says Mariner, executive director of The Center, D.C.’s LGBT community center.

While Mariner credits Rhee for being ”passionate about her work,” he goes on to say, ”test scores are important and they give us one piece of a puzzle about the health and well-being of youth in D.C. Public Schools, but there are a lot of pieces of that puzzle that I would like to see us focus on.”

With regard to LGBT youth specifically, Mariner adds, ”If you compare the 2007 data on GLBT youth from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey to the 2009 data, it shows that there has been no significant improvement in the health and well being of GLBT students in the DCPS system.”

The data supplied from that survey is a certainly a legitimate point in assessing Rhee’s three-year tenure as chancellor. So is a more subjective assessment from a leader such as Andrew Barnett, who heads the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL).

”Chancellor Rhee and her team were always supportive of GLBT [youth],” says Barnett, pointing out that Rhee walked into a broken system in desperate need of repair. ”They were committed to making schools safer for GLBT youth. While she was chancellor, she visited SMYAL twice.”

With Kaya Henderson stepping in to serve as DCPS interim chancellor, the next permanent chancellor will be a decision for the next mayor – presumed to be D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray following his win in the Democratic mayoral primary.

Tenner has a fairly good idea of what he’d like to see in Rhee’s successor.

”I want to make sure we get a leader who is as fearless as Michelle has been on issues that are important to our community,” he says. ”Especially young blacks and GLBT youth.”

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