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.
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.
TR: What did you think of the documentary about our nation's public school system, Waiting for Superman?
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.