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Could an obscure legal doctrine force Sweet Briar to change its plan? By Will Grunewald
May Day exercises at Sweet Briar College, 1905. Photograph by Harris & Ewing, via Library of Congress.

Sweet Briar College will see out its final graduating class on Saturday, though alumni groups will try to keep the school open. At the crux of both the college’s founding and its controversial plan to close is a single, peculiar historical document, the last will and testament of Indiana Fletcher Williams.

One hundred fifteen years ago, Indiana Williams died in her Amherst County, Virginia, plantation home. Through her will, she gave $2,000 to the local Episcopal church, bequeathed a painting of the head of Christ to an acquaintance in New York, and set aside 3,000 acres plus $800,000 to found the Sweet Briar Institute—“a school or seminary for the education of white girls and young women.”

The reclusive widow had led a genteel life, as a girl attending school at Georgetown Visitation, as a young lady gamboling about on a Grand Tour of Europe, as an adult flitting about the Manhattan social scene or passing summers on Sweet Briar, her Virginia estate. But in 1884 Williams suffered a defining personal tragedy when her only child, Daisy, a delicate 16-year-old with blonde hair that tumbled in long curls, died of a lung disease.

Daisy’s death turned the remainder of Williams’ life into a Southern Gothic daydream. For months she had her domestic staff deliver breakfast daily to Daisy’s grave and later trot Daisy’s pony to the site, with the girl's riding skirt laid across the pommel. She would visit the cemetery herself in the afternoons, bringing the mail and reading it aloud to Daisy. For 16 years she preserved the main house exactly as it had been. In Daisy’s bedroom, Williams left clothes arranged neatly in the closet and kept fresh sheets on the bed. Then, one morning in 1900, she died on the floor at the foot of that bed. The new Sweet Briar Institute, she had written in her will, would serve as a “perpetual memorial” to her daughter.

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Posted at 05:01 PM/ET, 05/15/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The college "made me not only the leader, but the woman I am today," one alumna writes. By Kristen Anderson
Sweet Briar College's campus in an early-20th-century postcard. Image via the Boston Public Library's Flickr.

Sweet Briar College announced Tuesday that the school will close its doors for good this August. The Sweet Briar community is devastated, heartbroken, and at a loss for words. Why weren’t the alumnae and student body notified about this potential closure? How did the institution let the financial problems get so bad that they are closing the college? Why didn’t they use all their resources? What’s going to happen to the students and faculty? What’s going to happen to us? All of these thoughts ran through my head when I found out yesterday afternoon.

It’s a complete shame that this is happening to our beloved Sweet Briar. Sweet Briar made me not only the leader, but the woman I am today.

I'm disappointed with the way this decision was made. Sweet Briar polled members of the alumnae network but many have told me they were never told the school might close. And the board of directors decided to close the school without first reaching out to alumnae to ask for financial support. We didn't know the school was in trouble until we received an email Tuesday announcing their decision. Worse, during a conference call with parents and graduates yesterday, Sweet Briar administrators avoided hard-hitting questions about finances and why the school didn't contact us until it was too late.

Everyone has their own how-I-ended-up-at-Sweet-Briar story, and here's mine: Heading into my senior year of high school, my mother suggested I look into an all-women’s college. Of course, I shot down the idea. A few weeks later my mom had scheduled some college tours and we happened to be near Sweet Briar, so we stopped in for a visit. I fell in love; I felt at home the second I stepped on campus. The campus (all 3,250 acres of it) was absolutely stunning. I wanted to study business. The business department and professors I met with were great. The students were welcoming and I felt like I belonged. I have never felt more confident, driven, and ready to conquer anything in my entire life, and I owe it to Sweet Briar College. It is heartbreaking to learn that future women will not get the same opportunities and experiences that I have, that we all have.

Now there will be one less women’s college available to create powerful leaders and one less place for women to find their voices and earn the confidence they deserve.

If I had not enrolled seven years ago, my life would have been completely different. I am beyond blessed for the wonderful lifelong friends I have made, the many memories that I have, the outstanding education I received, and all the opportunities Sweet Briar has given me. Sweet Briar will forever be my home, and all of our homes. Thank you for everything.

Kristen Anderson is an account manager at Washingtonian. A group of alumnae have organized a campaign to raise money to keep the college open.

Posted at 03:00 PM/ET, 03/04/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Students who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say George Washington University makes it difficult to obtain their GI Bill benefits. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Adam Fagen.

Jonathan Fields did not anticipate that when the Corcoran College of Art and Design was absorbed into the George Washington University, one of the effects would be having to scramble to keep the lights on at his Arlington apartment.

Fields, 27, spent six years in the Army before enrolling in Corcoran in 2013 as an undergraduate photography student. When Corcoran merged with GW over the summer, Fields assumed there would be no impact on receiving his veteran’s housing stipend to cover his living expenses. But on September 1, he woke up with $23.42 in his bank account. Fields got a $600 bridge loan from GW’s military and veterans office to buy groceries and pay the bills at home, but he’s now worried he won’t be able to cover what he owes to GW.

For serving in the Iraq War, Fields receives benefits under the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistant Act (also known as the New GI Bill), including tuition assistance, a housing allowance of about $2,100 per month, and a book stipend. The GI Bill covers up to $20,235 of tuition and fees at a private college. Many schools—including Corcoran and GW—participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an additional benefit in which tuition expenses above the nominal cap are split between the institution and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fields received $18,077 in base GI Bill benefits for the 2013-14 academic year. Yellow Ribbon payments kicked in another $6,527 from the VA and $6,292 from Corcoran to cover the rest of his tuition. Corcoran also awarded Fields a scholarship of $3,000 per semester when he matriculated. But with his GI benefits covering 100 percent of his education and associated costs, the scholarship effectively turned into a cash refund. Fields used the money to pay his rent over the summer, when the GI Bill did not apply.

But GW does things differently. Although it officially honors Fields’s Corcoran award, GW applies scholarships and grants to tuition first, with the GI benefits paid afterward. The upshot: Fields won’t be getting that refund this year.

“Aside from screwing vets out of actual earned GI Bill benefits, they are also effectively screwing vets out of our awarded scholarships,” Fields tells Washingtonian.

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Posted at 02:05 PM/ET, 12/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The merger was supposed to boost Corcoran students. Instead, they feel snubbed. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Flickr user SBC9.

The Corcoran School of Art and Design is nearly finished with its first semester under the aegis of George Washington University. While university administrators spin confidently about the merger, the Corcoran's students say it's been a bumpy—and in a few cases, financially ruinous—experience, with some students reporting difficulty in obtaining student loans, finding unexpected fees on their semesterly bills, and feeling a larger sense of being overlooked by their new university.

Kara Frame, a second-year graduate student studying new media and photojournalism, says she had a "WTF" moment when scanning her bill for the spring 2015 semester and noticing a "Corcoran Legacy General Fee" of $200. While Frame says the Corcoran levied a similar fee when it was still an independent institution, it was only paid once per academic year, instead of every semester. But more pressing on Frame's finances is the $12,000 in personal debt she accrued this year when she charged the tuition for her summer classes to her American Express card because, she says, the Corcoran's financial aid office neglected to make itself available for graduate students before the summer session began this past May.

"I’m getting calls from this debt collector," she says. "Well, I sure as hell don’t have it."

While Frame says the Corcoran College (now School, under GW's auspices), was already lurching to an administrative halt before the court order, she and her fellow 550 Corcoran students are having a "bumpy and rough" time in the GW community. Besides the now-twice-yearly legacy fee, Frame says lab fees have jumped from $450 per academic year to $700. There's also a library fee of $25 per semester, she says.

That Corcoran students are paying more than what they expected to when they matriculated appears discredit the merger's stipulation that students' costs would remain what the Corcoran announced in April, when it set tuition for the 2014-15 academic year at $31,858 for undergraduates and $1,404 per credit hour for Frame's new media graduate program. (Other graduate tracks charge $1,258 per credit hour.)

Screenshot from Kara Frame's bill for the spring 2015 semester.

The former Corcoran organization, effectively broke after 145 years, announced in February the plan to divvy up its museum and art school between the National Gallery of Art and GW. The arrangement went forward in August after a DC Superior Court judge ruled against Save the Corcoran, a group of students, staff, and faculty who tried to block the institution's dissolution. The verdict came down just one week before the start of classes, leaving GW to integrate 370 students, 21 faculty, and 28 staff from Corcoran on the fly.

Still, Corcoran legacy students say the process is far messier than it needs to be. Frame's new-media classmate, Caroline Lacey, says Corcoran students have no reliable point-of-contact to speak with about their concerns—a condition caused by GW's higher-ups not putting any Corcoran employee into an administrative, dean-like position within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Instead, Alan Wade, a theater professor, is serving as the Corcoran program's interim director.

"Symbolically, it says a lot to us about the way we are being integrated," Lacey tells Washingtonian. "It's critical for us to have someone in that position who understands the culture and climate of our small community. It feels like we're in this on our own, totally rogue."

Candace Smith, GW's assistant vice president for media relations, acknowledges the crunched window between the court ruling and the start of the academic calendar, but says the university has been forthcoming with the Corcoran bunch, including an invitation to freshman orientation. She also defends the merger as one that will be ultimately beneficial to the Corcoran program.

"They’re still in a small school, but it’s part of a large university," Smith says. "They have access to all these other programs. And, hey, we’re like a top university in the country, too."

However prestigious GW is, it's being lumped into a school with 25,000 other students that also has Corcoran students worried about their program's future.

"The thing with GW is that the problem they had with us in the first place, they were concerned Corcoran students wouldn't have to pay for the same things," says Lacey Irvin, a first-year graphic design student. "We're not required to take those BS liberal-arts requirement things."

Irvin feels GW is trying to churn through the current crop of Corcoran students as quickly as possible, and the school does have an obvious financial advantage to graduate them in a timely fashion. Corcoran tuition is nearly $17,000 less than the university's regular undergraduate rate of $48,700, which makes GW one of most expensive four-year colleges in the country. Current Corcoran students will pay Corcoran rates, adjusted annually, but none of the documentation on GW's admissions website suggests future applicants won't pay the full freight.

"It seems like GW isn't interested in the legacy students," Irvin says. "We're the ones who are going to be a burden on them."

Like Frame, Irvin has also had some billing problems. The student accounts office told her November 24 that she had overpaid by $840. Anticipating a refund, Irvin went Christmas shopping. But last Wednesday, the office called back, saying it had made a clerical error on her spring 2015 bill and that she actually owes an additional $1,500.

Frame says the basic problem is an absence of transparency, something that gnaws at her while she finishes up her thesis project, a documentary and photo collection about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on the marriages of veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

"It’s upsetting we’re dealing with this when we should be focusing on finals," Frame says.

To Caroline Lacey, the first semester's unpleasantness can be summed up in GW's athletic mascot:

"All of it brings a new meaning to 'Colonials,' because that's exactly what's happening."

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 11:36 AM/ET, 12/10/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Test scores won't count on teacher performance reviews next year as DCPS switches to new standardized tests. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

The District’s public-school teachers are about to see a big change in how their employer evaluates their performances, thanks to the introduction of a new standardized testing regime. Over the past several years, student test scores have accounted for up to half of teachers’ end-of-year performance reviews, but DC Public Schools plans to suspend that metric, and will replace it with a new Common Core test next year.

District schools will drop the longstanding DC Comprehensive Assessment System in favor of a test developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a coalition of state education officials. The new tests are designed to fit the the more rigorous set of academic guidelines known as Common Core, which most state education agencies have adopted and is backed by the White House.

The new test will be administered during the 2014-15 school year, but won’t be counted, giving teachers and the school system time to adjust to the new tests. That logic also follows the advice of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which heavily promotes the adoption of Common Core standards but is advising school systems to wait two years before using new tests to evaluate teachers.

“We firmly believe that student learning is a key indicator of teacher performance—and value-added is one of the best ways to measure that,” DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says in a press release. “But we also know that new assessments always bring delays and unexpected complications.”

Test scores have been a major part of DC’s teacher evaluations since 2009, when Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle Rhee, started pegging educators’ job security to their students’ test performance. About 400 teachers have been fired since then. Connecting teacher evaluations to test scores has also led to widespread allegations of cheating. A report issued in April 2013 by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the DC agency that oversees academic standards, found evidence of cheating in 18 classrooms since student tests became a crucial part of evaluations.

The portion of evaluations currently made up by test scores will be replaced by classroom observation during the one-year layover, DCPS says. Results of the new PARCC tests will start counting for or against teachers—the most successful of whom earn bonuses of up to $20,000—in the 2015-16 school year.

Posted at 04:55 PM/ET, 06/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Sorry, kids. You can’t tweet your way to a snow day. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.

Since the beginning of the contemporary public education system, winter weather patterns bring youthful eagerness for a snow day. But in 2013, students can air such hopes on the Internet, and like many things that teenagers do, it gets out of hand pretty quickly.

Joshua Starr, the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, issued an open letter to the parents of his system’s 151,000 students last week in response to a flurry of harassing tweets and emails he received urging him to close the county’s schools for a pair of recent wintry storms.

“Some of these ‘tweets’ were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework,” Starr wrote. “Many of these tweets, however, were offensive and disturbing. Some were threatening to me and others.”

Among the nastier messages, according to the Washington Post, were now-deleted tweets such as “i dont think your kids would be too happy with you if you didnt cancel school tomorrow” and “People go to hell for things like this.” (For the record, Montgomery County did have a two-hour delay last Monday, and closed all-day last Tuesday for a storm that dumped just a little bit of rain on most of the Washington area.)

DC Public Schools doesn’t have the same problem as its suburban neighbor, spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz says. Although DCPS got plenty of tweets about last week’s weather, many expressed incredulity about canceling a full day of classes for light rain instead of outrageous demands to close.

And, as Salmanowitz says, while DCPS observes its students’ social media, no flurry of tweets is going to compel the department into declaring a snow day. “We’re happy to hear from them, but we leave the decisions to the experts,” she says.

Posted at 12:41 PM/ET, 12/17/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The school is made possible by a record gift from Frank McCourt Jr. By Carol Ross Joynt
The ceremony for the launch of the McCourt School of Public Policy in the courtyard of Georgetown University's Old North Building. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

Frank McCourt Jr., the colorful, often controversial former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was at Georgetown University Tuesday to celebrate the fruits of his record $100 million gift to the school. The elaborate ceremony of music and speeches brought him nearly to tears, especially when he addressed family members in the audience during his remarks. “I make this gift in gratitude to my family, especially to you, Mom, and to my dad,” he said. “I remain deeply indebted to you all.” He noted the timeliness of the occasion as well—launching a public policy school in a moment of extreme government dysfunction. The school, he said, will try to provide solutions to problems such as the current federal shutdown.

McCourt’s gift surpasses the university’s last record donation of $87 million, given by Harry Toulmin Jr. in 2010. The money funds Georgetown’s ninth school, joining law, business, medicine, and foreign service, to name only some of them. The public policy school in particular will dedicate itself to the analysis of the expanding and deepening government body of data files.

Three generations of McCourts have attended Georgetown over the past 80 years. Frank McCourt Jr. graduated in the class of 1975. A Boston native, he made his fortune in business, mainly commercial real estate projects and parking lots, and eventually bought the Dodgers, Dodger Stadium, and the operating rights to the LA Marathon. In the midst of volatile divorce proceedings in 2011, he put the Dodgers into bankruptcy, and the team was sold for $2 billion to a group that included Magic Johnson and former Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten.

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Posted at 10:29 AM/ET, 10/09/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Research by a George Washington University professor suggests that being overly optimistic and goal-oriented can actually keep you from success. By Michael Gaynor
Did Colin Powell’s team think too positive in the Iraq War? Photograph by Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images.

Even if you can dream it, you still probably can’t do it. And even if you build it, they probably won’t come. That’s the takeaway from research by Christopher Kayes, associate professor of management at George Washington University, who has spent years studying how positive thinking and goal-setting in business and politics can lead to failure.

The idea came to him after witnessing the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mount Everest—15 people dead in one spring, events chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Kayes saw that climbers were ignoring risks in pursuit of their idealistic goal. “Most mountain-climbing accidents happen on the way down,” says Kayes. “The climbers may get to the summit, but they didn’t notice this storm coming in. There are unintended consequences that can result in anything from injury to death.”

By thinking positively and concentrating on an aspiration, a person narrows his or her focus and becomes detached from reality.

In politics, several characteristics mark a relentlessly upbeat pursuit that’s doomed for disaster. Most notable is what Kayes calls “face-saving behavior”—the tendency for people to become so absorbed in their goals that the pursuit becomes a part of their identity, making it harder to give up when things go awry. He points to the GOP platform on immigration reform before the 2012 election—fences, self-deportation—that had been the party’s aim for so long. Republicans became incapable of abandoning it, even in the face of election-altering demographics. Kayes saw the same fixation in Everest expedition leaders who had promised clients they’d get them to the summit—and then didn’t give up when the weather turned, for fear of ruining their reputation. Says Kayes: “When we set a goal, we engage in this behavior that says, ‘I’ve got to accomplish this or I’m a failure.’ ”

His new book, The Breakdown and Rebuilding of Learning in Organizations—due later this year—looks at similar failures in the intelligence community’s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “They called it a ‘slam-dunk,’ ” Kayes says. “They told everyone that they knew it so well, they didn’t even need to open it up to criticism.”

The power of negative thinking comes in when an organization can challenge prevailing beliefs like that one and adapt to potential pitfalls. That was the case ten years later when that same intelligence community chose to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound. Inside accounts have depicted the process leading to the raid as a constant battle of second-guessing and worst-case-scenario planning.

“Fast-forward a decade and a lot of those people are still in play in this decision to go after bin Laden, but they took a very different approach to how they assessed the information,” Kayes says. “It’s an improvement in learning—and how to make more intelligent decisions.”

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:15 AM/ET, 03/25/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
New numbers released today show increases—mostly for charter schools. By Harry Jaffe

More families are trusting their children to DC public schools, according to numbers released today, but a deeper look shows promising trends, raises questions about the future of public schooling, and points out troubling numbers for the traditional public schools.

The base numbers would warrant happy days for public school officials: For the first time in more than a decade, the number of students enrolled in public schools topped 80,000, according to preliminary figures provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

In 2002 that number was 76,427, representing a trend of families fleeing the deteriorating public schools. Now the renovation of many decrepit school buildings and the drive to reform is drawing students back to public schools. The latest head count is 80,854.

New population figures show that younger people are moving into the city. Many are staying to start families, and they are sending their offspring to public schools.

Most of the increase went to public charter schools, from preschool to high school. The charters, funded with public dollars but operated independently of DCPS, gained 11 percent compared with the last school year. Traditional public schools gained 1 percent, a number that might drop to 0 when auditors review the preliminary figures.

“The trend of the past 16 years is continuing apace, at rates none of us could have anticipated” says Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a charter school advocacy group.

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Posted at 04:50 PM/ET, 10/25/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()
After just 22 months, Sullivan has been sacked. What do you think of the decision? By Carol Ross Joynt
Teresa Sullivan. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Miller_Center.

Updated June 26, 4:40 PM: Needless to say, it's been an odd and bumpy June on the otherwise tranquil Charlottesville, Virginia, campus of the University of Virginia. Today the school's board voted unanimously to reinstate president Teresa Sullivan, 16 days after she was ousted. The action comes after Virginia governor Bob McDonnell said that if the school did not reinstate her, he would seek resignations of the board members. Half of them are appointed by the governor. According to reports, the meeting was called to order by Rector Helen Dragas, who led the move to have Sullivan ousted, at that time without a vote. She apologized for the way the matter was handled. Sullivan, for her turn, said, "I want to partner with you in bringing about what's best for the university." 


The original story begins below.

Though the substance of the attention is different in nature, for the second time this year the University of Virginia is making national headlines, and not for the kinds of reasons that bolster a school’s image or endear students and parents. In the winter, UVA senior George Huguely V was found guilty of the murder of his girlfriend, Yeardley Love, who was also a senior. This week the campus reportedly is in turmoil over the June 10 ousting of university president Teresa Sullivan, who held the job for only 22 months. She claims the issue is that she didn’t bring “sweeping action” to change the campus, preferring a measured pace for economic reasons.

The members of the school board, who sought Sullivan’s resignation, picked a new interim president, but as if to underscore the internal unrest, the vote for Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the university’s school of commerce, was not unanimous. In a statement to the school community, the board’s chair, Helen E. Dragas, made reference to the controversial decision. “We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community,” the statement said. “You deserved better from this board.”

Sullivan spoke to the board in her own defense on Monday. We have paraphrased the remarks below and ask you to read them and give us your opinion. What do you think of the actions of the University of Virginia? Did the board act in haste? Was this political? Should the board itself be overhauled? Or was it a prudent decision and Sullivan’s time to go? Let us know in the comments.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 06/19/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()