D.C. chancellor ‘serious’ on education reforms

Kaya Henderson was for years the right-hand woman to an education pioneer who gained celebrity status.

Now, she’s gaining household recognition as the chancellor of D.C. public schools instead of serving in the No. 2 spot to Michelle A. Rhee, a controversial figure who stepped aside in October as Mayor Vincent C. Gray started his transition into office.

Mr. Gray tapped Ms. Henderson to replace Ms. Rhee, an aggressive chancellor under former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty who emphasized new approaches to academics while firing underperforming personnel and closing schools.

Today, Ms. Henderson takes on a system facing friction over how teachers should be evaluated and an investigation into alleged cheating in prior years. Yet she is enjoying her transition from the quintessential deputy to the person at the top.

“It’s very different. It means I have to go to the grocery store looking halfway decent,” she quipped, during an interview with The Washington Times at DCPS headquarters. “I run into people everywhere I am.”

Ms. Henderson said her public interactions “keep her ear to the ground” to both praise and complaints about the city’s 45,000 students and 123 schools.

Critics said the city should have conducted a national search for its next schools chancellor, arguing Ms. Henderson would have risen to the top if she was indeed the best candidate.

“The reason I stuck around was because principals and teachers were calling me saying, ‘Please stay, don’t go, we like your leadership style, we think that we are on a positive trajectory and we want to keep that going.’ ” Ms. Henderson said. “So I think people understand that I am serious about some of the reforms that we put in place, as was Michelle. But I think how I interact with people is very different.”

To be sure, her approachability and outreach efforts impressed D.C. Council members, who in June unanimously confirmed her as chancellor.

Among her most embraced and oft-repeated mantras about the next four years is: “Great schools, great people, great community connections,” with modernized school buildings and safe environments.

Ms. Henderson, 41, grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in Westchester County just north of the Bronx.

She went to a public elementary before enrolling in an all-girls Catholic middle school, “because the middle schools in our town didn’t meet my family’s expectations.”

She graduated from a public high school and attended Georgetown University, majoring in international relations with a concentration in Latin American studies. Her foray into the educational world, it seems, was more of an accident than a lifelong dream.

Watching friends travel abroad, Ms. Henderson thought: “There are significant issues here that I could have an impact on, the greatest of which seemed to be education.”

She said educational consulting appealed to her, but knew she needed classroom experience to be taken seriously. Through Teach for America, she taught Spanish to middle-schoolers in south Bronx.

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