Kaya Henderson: The Exit Interview
D.C.’s quiet but forceful leader is leaving, but she offers parting thoughts on Rocketship, replacing Michelle Rhee, and her biggest surprise while in charge.
By Alexander Russo
Roughly six years after she joined the District of Columbia Public Schools as chancellor, Kaya Henderson announced she will depart on September 30. As of the end of August, no permanent replacement had been named. John Davis, DCPS’s chief of schools, has been appointed interim chancellor, but the search for a permanent successor isn’t expected to generate results until this winter or spring.
In her years heading the DCPS, Henderson played a complicated role in the wake of her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, whose tactics and philosophy were controversial. She has restored some semblance of peace among classroom teachers, continued pursuing many of Rhee’s strategies, and developed her own initiatives.
Henderson is a strong proponent of mayoral control (rather than independent school boards) but not a wild-eyed charter enthusiast. She’s not inclined to make racial integration a top priority over quality schools. And she’s proud of what she has helped to accomplish (some suburban parents are now faking their addresses to get their kids into DC public schools!), but she knows there is a long way to go.
What’s the real story behind your becoming head of DCPS in 2010?
KH: I didn’t want the job. I took it only because everything was about to fall apart, because one person [Mayor Adrian Fenty] wasn’t reelected and one person [Michelle Rhee] didn’t want to do the job anymore. Jeopardizing the whole thing was not cool with me. I wanted to build a place where one person didn’t make that much of a difference.
What’s your proudest accomplishment, among all the things you’ve gotten done?
KH: In 2007, this was a district that had been pronounced dead. It was counted out. Nobody ever expected we could rise from the ashes. And yet we have restored people’s confidence. Families are choosing us. Scores are up.
Metrics aside, what’s the clearest example of this newfound confidence D.C. parents have?
KH: People are demanding things of us. They didn’t even ask before, because they didn’t think we could deliver.
What do you make of parents who live outside the district faking residency to send their kids to D.C. schools?
KH: It’s bananas. Never in my life did I imagine that people would do this. It was never a problem before. But there are so many people who are lying to get into our schools. I literally had to build out a residency fraud unit.
What’s your view of charter schools in D.C.?
KH: What we have in D.C. is two systems that are pretty similar to each other. Both have a handful of schools that are doing tremendously and a few that are struggling mightily—and a bunch of schools in the messy middle.
What’s wrong with having two systems for parents to choose from?
KH: We’re paying twice as much for not very different outcomes. I think that it’s not a good use of resources. We have experienced positive financial revenue in the city for the past 10 years, but if we were like a lot of other places, there’s no way that we would pay as much as we’re paying to support two different systems that are providing the same results.
What’s the ideal relationship between charters and district schools, then?
KH: The systems should be complementary. Let’s figure out what the district does well and doesn’t do well, and the same for charters. We’re stepping on each other’s toes.
Do you think that kind of cooperation can happen?
KH: We can coordinate, and we have coordinated on a load of things, like professional development and standards. Our citywide lottery was one that came completely out of collaboration. Nobody made us do it. We wanted to make it easier for families.
What might focus more people on solutions rather than on fighting?
KH: There are some folks trying to knit [opposing parties on education] together. I am a founding member of Education Leaders of Color, a new group looking for a third way on education improvement. But at the same time, I see re-entrenchment.
What have you done to build bridges in DCPS?
KH: I have invited people who are our enemies to sit down and talk and get to know me. We might have different ways of going about things. Sometimes—a lot of times—we can figure something out. I’m not going to knock your hustle, and you can’t knock mine. I find that sitting down and having conversations really works.
What’s the lesson of the Rocketship expansion story, which goes back to a panel on which Netflix head Reed Hastings promised to get a Rocketship charter in D.C. pretty quickly?
KH: We have a sense of urgency about fixing the problem. We don’t realize that it didn’t take 15 minutes to make things terrible. Public education is not simple. It is nuanced. It is technical. It is community influenced. It was literally five or six years before Rocketship started the process to come to D.C. And the community pushed back the initial Rocketship opening. People were not interested in what it was selling. It had to regroup.
What’s the worst part of this job?
KH: One of the crazy things about this job is you rarely pick your head up. It’s something I like least about the job: that you don’t have the professional collaborative time that you have in other jobs. That’s one of my missed opportunities.
Have you been able to work with and learn from other districts and district leaders?
KH: Among several, I’d name Tom Boasberg in Denver. We’ve learned a lot from each other. San Francisco’s Richard Carranza [who just announced he’s leaving to take the Houston job] is a good friend. Valeria Silva in St. Paul has done some awesome things about race and equity. Barbara Jenkins in Orlando (Orange County), Florida, we’ve had tons of conversations. And also Deb Gist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And, of course, there are my charter friends I talk to.
What’s the unfinished business, the regret, the mistake that you most wish you could have addressed?
KH: There’s so much more to accomplish. There are a bunch of things. We’re still not where I want to be on our scores, graduation rate, or equity across the district, or special education outcomes. All of those things are way better than when I got here. But there’s a lot more that I want for D.C. public schools.
So why are you leaving, then?
KH: Part of the reason I’m leaving is that when I started here, I woke up every day on fire, ready to work 25 hours a day. I’m just old now [laughs]. I can’t do that anymore. I feel really excited that there are a group of people who will keep the work going without me.
Which is better: integrated schools or high-performing ones?
KH: High-performing schools at all costs. If they happen to be integrated, that’s great.
Do you think the #BlackLIvesMatter movement can help schools?
KH: Absolutely. The schoolhouse is where all of society’s problems intersect. My teachers also have to confront the trauma that our young people face every day. Kids come to class after having been stopped by the police, and we can’t just ask them to turn to page 25. To the extent that BLM can combat some of the tragedies that our families are facing, it helps me to do my job better.
What do you think is going to happen next with the reform fight?
KH: This is some people’s hustle, right? So not much is going to change anytime soon. This is how they make their money. But you can’t fight your way to success. If you want to fight, miss me on that—I don’t have time. Otherwise, come on. We may have different theories of action about how to get to success. But nobody’s theory of action has gotten us to quality at scale for every kid who comes in the door. We can spend time tearing each other down or apply our energy to creating solutions.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images