Michelle Rhee got a reality check in her first year of teaching, in 1993. The second graders at Harlem Park Elementary in a tough neighborhood in Baltimore were hard enough to keep in their seats, let alone teach anything. One day a bumblebee got into the classroom and the students were more out of control than ever. The daughter of Korean immigrants wasn't about to let a bunch of rowdy 8-year-olds trample her aspirations to get them to learn. When the bee landed on Rhee's desk, she swatted it, popped it in her mouth and gulped it down. For the first time, it seemed, her students were quiet. After that day they paid more attention, even if they were just waiting to see what she'd do next. "The kids were, like, 'Oh, my God, she's crazy! Who is this woman?' " Rhee says.
That's precisely the question being asked in Washington, D.C. Rhee, 37, has taken on the city's most unruly job: reforming the D.C. public schools. When the city's new mayor, Adrian Fenty, asked her to be his schools chancellor last summer, she refused at first. "Absolutely not. That's an impossible job," she recalls saying. D.C.'s public schools spend more per student than almost every other major school district but have some of the worst test scores in the country. Fenty said he'd risk his popularity to fix them, so Rhee accepted his challenge. She has already piqued unions and parents by announcing plans to fire more than 100 administrative workers and close down 23 schools. "If the rules don't make sense for kids, I'm not going to follow them. I don't care how much trouble we get in," she warned Fenty.
No one is more aware than Rhee that she is an unconventional fit for D.C. She has never run a school district. Then there is the issue of a Korean-American running predominantly African-American schools. Rhee has tried to defuse racial tension with her blunt talk. "I bet you are wondering what this Korean lady is doing here," she told one all-black audience.
A compulsive e-mailer, she has been involved in minutiae like repairing broken water fountains. She told the lawyers to stay away while she tries to renegotiate a new teacher contract herself. She has met with every school principal, telling those at failing schools they could lose their jobs if they don't raise test scores. Her imperial style has irked some. "Good. I don't want them to be comfortable," Rhee says. Just as in Harlem Park, everyone is waiting to see what she does next.