St. Hope taps Michelle Rhee as board chair, removes superintendent

St. Hope Public Schools has named Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., schools chief and charter schools advocate, as its new board chairwoman and removed Jim Scheible as its superintendent.

St. Hope leaders plan to launch a national search for Scheible’s replacement and have tapped Rhee protégé Enoch Woodhouse as interim leader. The flurry of moves in the last two weeks give Rhee a powerful new role in the charter school system founded by her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

After leaving Washington, Rhee in 2010 created a well-financed advocacy group, StudentsFirst, which has taken aim at teachers unions in state and local politics. Rhee has focused on overhauling programs that serve disadvantaged children, but her efforts to change layoff policies and teacher evaluations have drawn scorn from educators at traditional schools.

Rhee previously served on the St. Hope board in 2006 and 2007.

Johnson launched St. Hope as an after-school program in Oak Park in the late 1980s. The St. Hope program evolved into the charter school system that expects to enroll about 1,800 students this fall, according to Scheible.

Woodhouse, a veteran of Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization, said the change will enable the superintendent’s job to be more manageable. He served as vice president of operations at StudentsFirst, oversaw strategic planning and, most recently, became a national advocate.

He also worked at Washington, D.C., public schools. His biography shows that he led the system’s public information programs. He said he resigned from the St. Hope governing board to take the interim job, and he will move from Philadelphia to Sacramento to run the district for one year.

“For the past few years … a single superintendent was sitting at the top managing across five school (principals) and an office staff,” Woodhouse said. “We’re turning one role into three. We’ll have a chief academic officer. I will more directly manage the operating side of the house.”

St. Hope moved Scheible to the position of chief advancement officer, overseeing revenue generation and growth.

StudentsFirst is active in 18 states. Woodhouse said the group seeks to pass laws and policies in those states that “in our view make sense for kids ... support best teachers and ... expand quality charters.”

Among them, he said, are mayoral control of schools and tying budget allocations to student outcomes. He said it makes sense for Rhee to return to the governing board.

“Michelle has been board chair before and invested significant time in St. Hope,” he said. “For me, this has nothing has to do with StudentsFirst, except that we’re ideologically aligned and we want the best for all our kids.”

St. Hope is an independent charter system – meaning that it governs itself independently from the Sacramento City Unified School District that grants its charter. In 2003, St. Hope received its charter for Sacramento High School in a controversial 4-3 board vote that survived litigation and opposition from the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

Lori Jablonski, a teacher at McClatchy High School in Sacramento who is active on education issues, expressed surprise at Rhee’s new role.

“She’s been on this national stage and just a couple of years ago she was going to raise $1 billion to reform the education system around the country and was busy in the political milieu in different states,” Jablonski said. “So this is a real shrinking of what she’s been doing, what her life’s work is. It really surprises me.”

Two trustees of Sacramento City Unified said Friday they are hopeful the new leadership will continue to be accessible and collaborative with the school district. Both Diana Rodriguez and Gustavo Arroyo noted that the charter system is is autonomous from the Sacramento district’s governance.

“I personally have a lot of respect for Jim Scheible,” Rodriguez said. “We may not have agreed with everything. But he would sit down and talk. And it’s something I hope we can continue to do.”

Arroyo noted that every independent charter “has to make decisions on what’s best for the children they are serving.”

Rhee declined to be interviewed for the story. Her spokeswoman at StudentsFirst, Brittany Parmley, offered a limited statement: “As an advocate for education equality, Michelle is excited again to be a part of St. Hope’s growth and progress.”

St. Hope runs Sacramento Charter High School, Oak Park Preparatory Academy serving middle school pupils, Public School 7 elementary and an early childhood center, Triumph. The system focuses on minority and low-income students and places an emphasis on preparing students at all grade levels for college educations.

St. Hope’s Public School 7 has placed among the highest-scoring campuses in Sacramento City Unified, posting an 891 Academic Performance Index score in 2012 before falling to 856 in 2013. The state sets 800 as a goal for all schools. Three out of four students at Public School 7 qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on family income.