Community Palette

The Chancellor Screws Up- But Not Irrevocably

February 18, 2018

The current Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) came in on a wave of high hopes and was confirmed by the Council on December 20, 2016. The question on everyone’s mind was whether Antwan Wilson could continue the progress made over the past eight years to improve the schools for all our children.

The District had survived the strum and drang of Michelle Rhee credited with successfully moving DCPS under Mayoral control and bringing reform to the system. She eventually left under a cloud at the end of the Fenty administration seemingly more interested in personal aggrandizement than anything else. Her deputy Kaya Henderson took over and moved the system forward. But by the end of her term there were some questions being raised about whether we had really come as far as was thought or were some of the numbers being fudged. Reality was there was progress during her years at the helm, slow but steady progress. But the achievement gap between Black, Latino and white students continued and in some cases even grew.

So Mayor Bowser swore in Chancellor Wilson with high hopes and he spoke about how he was going to move forward a system making it responsive to all students. Just about everyone was willing to give him a chance and he began by meeting with teachers and parents and students around the city. During his first year student test scores did go up and the Mayor signed a long overdue contract with the teachers union. 

But as always in DC nothing with the school system goes totally smoothly. First there was the brouhaha over how Kaya Henderson gave preferential treatment to some children of well-connected parents, including government officials, allowing them to bypass the lottery system used by parents who want to send their children to a school outside their neighborhood. The Mayor responded quickly and instructed the new Chancellor to develop a strict policy that would no longer allow this to happen which he did. Things then move along fairly quietly until the next headline making problem at DCPS questioning whether the increase in graduation rates from city high schools was real. 

This headline was written when it was brought to light students at Ballou High School were being graduated apparently without regard to qualifications after they had been absent from school for huge parts of the year. The Chancellor was asked whether he had brought pressure on teachers to graduate unprepared students. The immediate response was to fire the Principal of the school and the Mayor then asked for a review of the facts at Ballou and for an outside review of the graduation requirements and whether they were being followed at all the high schools in the District. It became clear in the push to up graduation rates we were graduating some students not prepared to graduate and this was a disservice to them. Currently the Chancellor is looking at whether the vaunted teacher evaluation  system installed by Rhee called IMPACT may be responsible for putting too much emphasis on how many students graduate rather than on how they are being taught and whether they are actually learning.  It will be interesting to see what Wilson finds after this review and what changes to the system may be made. Hopefully he will work closely with experts in evaluation and consult with teachers and parents as the system is reviewed. 

Now the latest headline from DCPS finds Chancellor Wilson has acted more like a parent, instead of a Chancellor. In an effort to do what he thought best for his child he circumvented the new rules he himself wrote to have his daughter moved from one school to another because he and his wife thought it would better meet her needs. He had the help of the Deputy Mayor for Education in doing this and rightly she immediately lost her job. Now the question the Mayor has to answer is should the Chancellor lose his as well?  She has apparently determined at the moment that he will not and I support her decision. The upheaval which occurs every time the system gets a new Chancellor is much worse than trying to move beyond this mistake by Wilson.

What the Chancellor did was dumb. But we know parents often do dumb things when it comes to their children. Children of public officials often suffer because of their parents jobs. While all parents in the District have the opportunity to make a choice for their children regarding schools including sending them to DCPS, a charter school or a private school; one can only imagine the headline had Wilson chosen anything but a DCPS school for his children. Remember when Adrian Fenty didn’t send his kids to a public school and then got questioned when he finally did and they went to an out of neighborhood school seemingly circumventing the system. President’s like Clinton and Obama ended up sending their children to private schools while Carter sent his child to a public school which may not have been the best choice for her but he did it out of principle.

So yes Antwan Wilson made a big mistake. Does it mean he should be fired? I think the answer has to be a resounding NO at this time. The determining factor as to how long he is Chancellor has to be based on how well the children of the District do in school and not where his child ends up going to school. I am sure he won’t do something like this again and we should accept his apology and move on. 


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Kahn Directs a Tour de Force Hamlet

February 7, 2018

The king of Denmark has been murdered and his son Hamlet comes home from school to deal with all the craziness of his family’s situation. Some think he is going mad, and this is a madcap play with plenty of humor. His school friends and family are all spying on each other as they try to figure out what is going on.  Casting Michael Urie as Hamlet may not have seemed the thing to do for this most famous of Shakespeare’s plays and for what Michael Kahn has said will be his last time directing Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC). Urie has been called a brilliant comedic actor and we all know him from his roles in ‘Ugly Betty’, his brilliant one-man show Buyer and Cellar at the STC, and his recent rave reviews in New York for Torch Song.  But Kahn said he always wanted to do Hamlet with Urie since having him as a student at Julliard where he performed a scene from the play with fellow student Jessica Chastain. You quickly recognize not only was it an inspired choice after hearing Urie deliver the soliloquy “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!” which Kahn moved to open the play instead of its usual place in Scene two. By the end of the play you know what you saw can only be called a tour-de-force performance by Urie. 

Ryan Spahn, Michael Kahn, Michael Urie (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Ryan Spahn, Michael Kahn, Michael Urie

Kahn has said about this production “As I return to this play, I’ve found myself thinking about its complexities—public and private, political and familial—not in new ways, necessarily, but with an altered center of gravity in the world of 2018. First, we must remember that, beneath the diplomatic emissaries and complicated political plotting, Hamlet is at root an intimate family drama about a son deeply in mourning for his dead father and disturbed by his mother’s sudden remarriage. The family relationships that lie at the heart of Hamlet are crucial to the piece.”

While staying true to Shakespeare Kahn mused “While I was thinking about directing this play over the past year and a half, the world changed. All over, bullies and autocrats are gaining power and influence, signaling a resurgence of authoritarian leadership that seemed inconceivable a few years ago. Now, Hamlet is not a political play, but the situation in the play is a political one. This is a play where everybody spies on everyone else, a society where trust is meaningless—in large part because a very serious crime has been committed and is being covered up by the powers that be. Claudius’ paranoia has led to a kind of surveillance state, where questions and criticism are notably absent. It is a true test of Hamlet’s intelligence and improvisational ability to remain one step ahead of his enemies in this mousetrap world. This time around, I started thinking that one of the reasons Hamlet puts on his “antic disposition” is that it provides a way for the spied-upon to become a spy himself. After all, if you’re crazy, people might say more things in front of you than they would otherwise. Hamlet’s madness, of course, means something, but it also says something profound about the mad world he—and we—are living in.”

He went on to say “In sum, this Hamlet is a family drama of the most powerful kind and also the most explosive kind of political theatre. I have decided to hear it anew by taking it deadly seriously, as something Shakespeare might write today. For all these reasons, I have decided that this play works best for our purposes in modern dress, set it in an unnamed country. It still may feel all too familiar.”

Ryan Spahn, Kelsey Rainwater, and Michael Urie (Photo by: Scott Suchman) Ryan Spahn, Kelsey Rainwater, and Michael Urie

So if you keep Kahn’s thoughts in mind when you go you will revel in this modern day Hamlet understanding it stays true to what Shakespeare wrote. From the security desk and computer screens in the opening scene to the smartphones the cast uses to text each other, it all works. If you have seen or read Hamlet you will get insights into the play you might not have had before; if you are new to Hamlet you will become a fan and understand how great a play it is. . For those who question the modern dress I would remind you when it was originally performed it was also in modern dress of that time. 

Joining Urie is a star powered cast including Madeleine Potter (Gertrude), Hamlet’s mother, who shines with a commanding presence particularly in act two. Two cast members who stand out are Ryan Spahn (Rosencrantz) and Kelsey Rainwater (Guildenstern) who make you laugh with their on target performances including their entrance when they are taking selfies. Keith Baxter (Ghost/1st Player/Gravedigger), the oldest member of the cast by far, reminds you with every scene he is in why he has had such a great and long career.  Federico Rodriguez (Horatio) is a winning friend to Hamlet and Robert Joy (Polonius) who is returning to STC after his brilliant performance as King Charles in last season’s production of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III is equally brilliant here. Paul Cooper is a totally believable Laertes. The entire company do themselves proud. 

This production is enhanced by all those incredibly talented people behind the scenes. Kahn has put together a brilliant group including scenic designer John Coyne, costume designer Jess Goldstein, lighting Yi Zhao, sound and original music Broken Chord, and of course Kahn’s assistant director Craig Baldwin.  Together with the cast they make this production of Hamlet a memorable night in the theater no one should miss.  

Hamlet will be at Sidney Harman Hall through March 4. Get your tickets today.  

 

 


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Happy Holidays

December 24, 2017

Donald Trump may not like this headline but since I don’t know whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist saying “Happy Holidays” seems the appropriate and courteous thing to do.

 

I recognize even in this tumultuous world my life is blessed in so many ways. I have a roof over my head, food to eat, clothes to wear, and most of all, great friends. Some of those friends meet each morning at Java House in Dupont where we debate the outrages of the previous day. Most of us live a life of what would be considered white privilege. We recognize that and maybe because of it try harder during the year to make a difference for others. Lawyers do pro-bono work and submit amicus briefs to the Supreme Court to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community; a professor teaches his students about the world so they have the knowledge to make a difference; environmentalists fight for a real response to climate change; State Department officials work, despite the current leadership, for human rights and to continue to have the United States hold people responsible for the war crimes they have committed. Together we marched for science, for equality, for the environment, for immigration and continue to support the ‘resistance.’

 

This year, because the world is in such turmoil in what is normally a season of joy and celebration, it’s sometimes hard to generate that feeling. We have ISIS, other terrorist groups and individuals creating chaos around the world and innocent people dying. Refugees are fleeing from war-torn countries and being turned away from borders including ours. Knowing all this it’s not difficult to believe we have lost the spirit and will that leads us to take responsibility for each other. That previous constant, especially true in this season, which led us to do everything we could to make life better for each other.

 

So to reclaim what should be a season of peace and joy, let’s strengthen the spirit of giving and sharing just a little more. Let each of us commit to doing at least one more thing to make life better for someone else. Surely that will give our spirits a lift. Donate money to an organization like SMYAL or the Trevor Project; donate a winter coat to a child who would otherwise be cold this winter; donate a toy to Toys for Tots so no child will go without a gift this season; reach out to a military family with someone serving who won’t be home for the holidays this year with warm thoughts and a big thank you; or just invite friends and family to enjoy a meal and donate the equivalent cost of the meal to an organization like So Others Might Eat (SOME). Surely doing one or more of these things will help reclaim the spirit of the season.

 

If enough of us do these things in some little way we will be countering the efforts of a president and Republican Congress that seem singularly dedicated to making life worse, instead of better, for those less fortunate. They seem to get joy from passing legislation and instituting policies that will hurt the working poor, minorities, immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community. Instead of trying to make it easier for more people to vote they work to make it harder. Instead of using government to make life fairer and more equal they use the levers of power to make it less equal and more difficult for workers to reach the middle class. They refuse to pass a timely bill to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) potentially taking healthcare away from nearly nine million children. They keep trying to destroy healthcare for millions more covered by the Affordable Care Act whittling away at it even though they couldn’t pass legislation to repeal it. They brag about passing a tax reform package that will hurt the poor and middle-class and benefit the rich and corporations threatening to cut Medicaid and Medicare to pay for it.

 

So during this holiday season let us each commit to continue to resist and do so with actions both large and small as we wish each other joy and peace. Let’s recommit to caring for each other and sharing with each other the bounties we have; knowing that only by working together will we survive these difficult times and leave no one behind. From my house to yours in unity may we find ways to enjoy this holiday season and spread a little peace and joy.

 

This column was first printed in the Washington Blade.


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