Getting to Know Chancellor Lewis Ferebee

Last week the Federal City Council co-hosted a lunch with CityBridge Education featuring Dr. Lewis Ferebee, DC Public Schools recently confirmed Chancellor. FC2 Trustee Katherine Bradley led the discussion. She began at the beginning—asking Ferebee about his upbringing and his parents.

He is a proud member of the “family business.” He grew up in North and South Carolina where both parents were educators committed to serving low-income youth. His mother kept the library open on the weekends because there was no public library. His father would drive young Ferebee to neighborhoods where houses still had dirt floors, reminding him why his parents devoted their lives to helping others.

But Ferebee didn’t grow up thinking he would be a teacher. In college, he majored in biology.

The pivotal moment, prompting a career change, came while he was fulfilling a college volunteering requirement at a local school. He started as a football coach. But it became clear that he had a natural talent with youth and for leading. He was asked to help with reading tutorials, and within a few weeks, he was converted. “The classroom was intoxicating,” he said. He switched majors and his parents couldn’t have been more proud.

His climb up the leadership ladder was especially fast and steep. After teaching biology for only a few months, his superiors again quickly noticed his potential. He was asked to help write new standards and assessments for biology and to lead staff training sessions. When he was just 25 years old, he got a call from the Superintendent of Guildford County Schools, who wanted him to be Principal of the lowest-performing school in the district. He was given carte blanche to turn things around, and he did. The school’s test scores rose from being the worst to being better-than-average.

His turnaround strategy was based largely on relationships, trust and listening. He set aside an hour to sit with each teacher, getting to know them and hearing about their experience and challenges. Ferebee had a knack not only for handling students—but in commanding the trust of adults he was leading. He went on to become Chief of Staff for Durham Public Schools and then Superintendent for Indianapolis Public Schools before finally heading to Washington, DC to be Chancellor.

From December through March, while Ferebee was in an interim role, he went on an outreach blitz. He met with and listened to the local community. As Chancellor, his listening tour continues. He holds “Ferebee Fridays” where he visits local businesses and community spots to have conversations with students and parents.

One of his big priorities as Chancellor is building enrollment. This hinges on plugging kids into the system early with pre-K and also ensuring that high school connects to career success. Parents have to trust that the whole DC Public School pipeline will deliver.

Ferebee describes himself as “part diplomat and part street fighter.” After so many scandals and Chancellor turnover, he understands that DCPS parents want stability. But he also knows that sometimes he will have to push for change.

He hopes that at the end of his tenure, all DCPS students graduate and go directly to either a job or college. If students do their part, work hard and graduate, Ferebee asks the business community do their part and hire them.