SIMMONS: Some questions for Henderson

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Kaya Henderson should face tough questions during her upcoming confirmation hearing because she isn’t going to face stiff opposition from D.C. lawmakers as the mayor’s pick to replace Michelle A. Rhee as schools chancellor.

Ms. Henderson already has proved that she’s willing to act quickly and decisively on issues including a suspected cheating scandal and questionable leadership at individual schools. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be on the hot seat now that congressional Democrats and Republicans have passed a five-month spending bill that includes money to revive the District’s school-voucher program, which siphons students from traditional D.C. public schools.

It falls to council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, to prove that Ms. Henderson is matching school spending plans with school reform plans.

The questioning of Ms. Henderson should turn on school closings, personnel spending and academic outcomes.

After getting an earful of questions during his community hearings that wrapped up last week, Mr. Brown would be wise to seek testimony from Kamili Anderson, who sent her own children to public schools and now has three grandchildren enrolled in them.

A resident of Northwest, Ms. Anderson told me over coffee Friday morning that she would have a couple of questions for Ms. Henderson if she had been seated at the table with us.

“How does she intend to address the gap between elementary and high school?” Ms. Anderson said. “We know lots of parents opt out of our middle schools, and high school students are sometimes only reading at a grade-school level. Parents are hedging their bets that D.C. Public Schools will catch them up.”

Ms. Anderson’s other question focused on how Ms. Henderson intends to engage parents in their children’s schools.

“What innovative or nontraditional ways would she implement to encourage the involvement of parents?” Ms. Anderson said.

“You have to be pragmatic in approach because some parents just aren’t going to go to their children’s schools unless they’re asked, or once or twice a year for school meetings,” she said. “Engaged parents impact school climate and teaching and learning, and engaged parents help determine academic outcomes.

“This is a different world than a generation ago. We’re so attached to a one-size-fits-all model of communication while young people are showing us that we need to be more innovative and technologically savvy,” she added.

There are plenty of other questions for Ms. Henderson, including how the pending D.C. voucher program affects projected enrollment, why she is considering using enrollment numbers to determine whether a school should be closed and whether the teacher evaluation program has improved student learning in middle schools and high schools.

Several middle schools across the city — including Brown, Sousa, Eliot-Hine, Jefferson and Kramer — are considered under-enrolled because they have fewer than 300 students.

There also are elementary schools on the under-enrollment list, but they likely will gain favor as officials turn grade schools into baby-sitting magnets.

Another round of school closings is inevitable as the popularity of charter schools and vouchers continues to prove why parents are so willing to opt out of traditional schools.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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