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“It was only about four miles from where I grew up, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world,” she said. Her students “were vibrant and bright, and when held to high expectations could rise to the occasion, but people had kind of given up on them because of the community in which they lived.”

Ms. Henderson became a recruiter for Teach for America, rising to national director of admissions. She became executive director for the organization’s chapter in the District.

That was 14 years ago, and she had a front-row seat for a “dysfunctional” system that couldn’t even start the school year on time because of leaky roofs and other infrastructure issues.

“I felt like, well this is the nation’s capital,” Ms. Henderson said. “Shouldn’t we be able to do this?”

After 3 1/2 years on the job, a Teach for America friend - Ms. Rhee - asked her to be vice president at her new consulting firm, the New Teacher Project. Ms. Henderson served in that capacity for seven years, gaining D.C. contacts along the way.

When Ms. Rhee was tapped by Mr. Fenty to be chancellor, she went to Ms. Henderson and asked, “‘Should we do this?”

“I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Ms. Henderson recalled. “We’d worked with schools districts across the country, begging them to prioritize teacher quality, and this would be our chance to show what can happen when we put that at the forefront.”

They made a major impact on D.C. schools by cutting teacher rolls and creating a new teacher-evaluation system known as IMPACT - all the while creating frequent friction with the teachers union.

“When you come into a completely dysfunctional system, you have to do some very difficult things in order to turn the tide, right?” Ms. Henderson said.

She has faced challenges in her first months in office, including defense of the IMPACT system and an investigation into a high number of erasures on standardized tests since 2008.

IMPACT is comprised of five observations a year by administrators and “master educators”; much of a teachers’ evaluation score is tied to student achievement.

“What we’ve said very firmly is you can’t be a successful teacher unless your students are successful,” Ms. Henderson said.

Some teachers said they enjoy the feedback and those who get consistently high marks ask to be left alone, she added.

Last week, Ms. Henderson said she welcomes the Department of Education assisting the District’s inspector general’s investigation into allegations of cheating on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System.

She says she is merely taking on the challenges faced by every urban school district, notably the achievement gap between haves and have-nots and how to use education to disrupt the cycle of poverty.

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