Now at Bat for D.C.’s Students: Kaya Henderson

Just after replacing the controversial Michelle Rhee, the interim chief of D.C. Public Schools shared her thoughts with The Root about the fate of fired teachers, reaching out to black parents and Waiting for Superman.

Michelle Rhee announces her resignation as Kaya Hendersonlooks on. (The Washington Post)
Michelle Rhee announces her resignation as Kaya Hendersonlooks on. (The Washington Post)

By Lauren Williams

Kaya Henderson, the interim chancellor of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), has inherited a complex legacy from Michelle Rhee, who resigned her post Oct. 13. Nationally, Rhee’s sweeping changes to schools in the nation’s capital made her a leader in the education-reform movement. Locally, many of those reforms, particularly performance-based teacher firings — 165 poorly reviewed teachers, many of them black, were fired this summer, and another 737 teachers were given warnings — made her a political liability for her champion, Mayor Adrian Fenty. Fenty lost his primary re-election bid to City Council Chairman Vincent Gray in September.

Presumptive Mayor-elect Gray has vowed to continue Rhee’s education-reform agenda, the highlight of which is teacher quality. Henderson, who served as Rhee’s deputy for the last 3½ years, has pledged to do the same. But Henderson is no Rhee clone — the agenda is the same, but their styles might be a bit different. Henderson, who is African American, has been a D.C. resident for 13 years and perhaps won’t be perceived by longtime Washingtonians as lacking a connection to the community, as Rhee, who is Asian American, often was. The Root chatted with Henderson about getting the community on board with reform, Waiting for Superman and the economic role that school systems play in the community.

The Root: You were Rhee’s deputy for her entire tenure. What parts of her agenda will you keep, and what will you change?

Kaya Henderson: There is no “her agenda, my agenda.” It’s been our agenda for the last 3½ years. And not just she and I, but the management team that we’ve been able to pull together. I’m thrilled that they have all agreed to stay, so we’re just going to keep on the course that we’ve been on.

TR: How do you think you’re a different sort of leader from Rhee?

KH: We’re not the same person, but we have been very complementary. I’ve been here in the District for 13 years and have built relationships with parents, the community, teachers, politicians, decision makers and organizations that I’m going to draw on. I’m a known quantity here. And I think that I come with the relationships that I either had before or initiated and deepened in the last 3½ years to be able to keep the reforms going forward.

TR: Are there any plans to rehire any teachers who were let go?

KH: If the teachers were let go for performance reasons, no. Absolutely not. We continue to believe that if you can’t perform in the classroom, you cannot work here. So there is no backing off of that. IMPACT, the [teacher] evaluation system that we rolled out, came out of my shop, so for me to then turn around would be crazy. That being said, for people who were let go for budgetary reasons, they are welcome to reapply, and have been, even under the Rhee administration.

TR: Teacher quality is one of the benchmarks of your education reforms. It’s been said that DCPS is one of the primary employers of middle-class blacks. How do you reconcile the economic role that a teaching job plays with the school system’s commitment to excellence?

KH: For me personally, the point of an education system is to educate students, and I am going to ensure that that happens. Period. The end. An education system is not a jobs program. I think that the presumptive mayor-elect has an agenda around economic development, and that’s great, but the moment we start prioritizing jobs for people on the backs of our children, we are making a significant mistake.