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)

KH: I was thrilled that the country now gets a glimpse of the issues that I have been working on, fighting for 18 years. So I think that it’s great to bring to the consciousness of John Q. Public some of the challenges that are happening in education. I thought that it was brilliant for [filmmaker] Davis Guggenheim to focus on these children and their families and the war that they are in on a day-to-day basis just to try to ensure that their kids have a great education. That story is so compelling.

Every parent, every teacher, every person understands wanting the best for their kids, and I think that’s the frame for this entire thing. I’m working for the day when I can send my kid to any school, any classroom in the District of Columbia, and be confident about the education that they are going to get. And I think Superman lays bare the fact that we are not there yet.

TR: One complaint about DCPS is that many black parents feel that their voices are not being heard. You said the agenda’s not changing. Will there be a cultural change that might make parents feel heard?

KH: As I said, I’ve been here for 13 years. I’ve seen a lot of superintendents, and I feel that the vehicles are in place for parental involvement, engagement, feedback, whatever. You know, this administration has hosted town halls, living rooms, chancellor’s hours. We are incredibly responsive, and I think that both my team and I will ensure that the lines of communications continue to stay open.

We have things planned on the technology front, utilizing texts to be able to reach more parents. Providing more and more outlets and opportunities for parents to weigh in is really important to us. People just want to be heard, and it doesn’t matter whether you ultimately implement everything that everybody says or not. I think people are good with the fact that leaders make hard choices. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that people at least feel like their voices were heard and considered as we move forward with reforms.

But I feel that in order to ensure that as much of this sticks as possible, we have to, as a city, take collective responsibility. It’s not just the school-district folks who have to move this agenda forward, it’s the community. I hope that the community is empowered to demand what we think is good and right for kids. And I actually feel that this Democratic cycle was incredibly engaging — in fact, the last 3½ years. I have never seen this much talk, engagement, excitement, passion — good and bad, right — around education in this city, and I think we’ve turned the page to the point that everyone in the city is paying attention to education.

TR: You say everyone in the city is paying attention to education, but there’s also a national spotlight on D.C. schools. Is that added pressure?

KH: I feel the pressure, not even because of the national spotlight. I feel the pressure because I live here and because I want to make sure that in the place that I live, the schools are as good as possible. I am sitting in this seat because I got a great public education. I come from a low-income community. I come from a single-parent family. You know if it was not for public education, I would be a statistic. I know that if we’re able to build the right kind of education system here, it will literally change the life outcomes for our students and their families. And we’re going to do it.

Lauren Williams is associate editor of The Root.

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